Among the veterans

Mike Phipps reviews Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life, by Joe Glenton, published by Repeater.

People – politicians especially – make assumptions about ex-service personnel and Joe Glenton’s book seeks to challenge them. Glenton spent six years in the army, did a seven-month tour of Afghanistan, went AWOL and spent some months in a military prison.

When Keir Starmer re-launched Labour Friends of the Forces, he said, “I want to open up Labour again to our Armed Forces, their families and veterans across our country.” The assumption was either that the Corbyn leadership had been anathema to veterans or the latter were inherently right wing and had to be wooed back. Neither generalisation was true.

How could it be, given there are an estimated 2.5 million veterans in the UK? Even the Cenotaph is a contested area: Veterans for Peace UK marched there, and the man jailed for a month in 2000 for attaching a green turf Mohican hairstyle to a statue of Churchill was a former Royal Marine. Harry Patch, the last World War One veteran to pass on, described war as “organised murder” and November 11th as “show business”.

But the image of the right wing veteran dominates, partly because left wingers don’t tend to boast about their military credentials, for a variety of reasons. Yet left wing veterans exist in numbers, not least because of the centrality of class to their identity. And as an historical chapter in this book underlines, there is a long tradition or radicalism within the military.

“Historically, the British ruling class does not tend to love its soldiers,” notes Glenton. But it likes to harness the idea of the soldier-as-hero to its causes, and veterans are swept up in this instrumentalisation. One recent example is how the government cast soldiers as patriotic and loyal, but sorely wronged by villainous money-grubbing lawyers on the look-out for non-existent war crimes, to justify its Overseas Operations Bill. This fictitious narrative is undermined by the less publicised reality: in 2021 alone, the Minister of Defence settled 417 compensation claims by Iraqis and paid out millions of pounds to resolve allegations of abuse at the hands of British soldiers.

Glenton says: “But it is that version of us beyond the hero, the villain, the victim, the obedient worker, the folk hero, the fascist-in-waiting, and the war criminal that interests me. What I am looking for is the veteran as a thinking and critical human being.”

What veterans do have in common is also crucial: usually recruited young, from poorer backgrounds and all prepared for some level of violence in their basic training. Many soldiers suffer post-traumatic stress but many more suffer from moral injury – the damage done to your conscience as a result of a serious moral transgression.

A couple of years ago, I chaired a meeting of our local anti-war group where former soldiers recounted their experiences. Veterans for Peace UK had recently produced a report about how new recruits are isolated, disorientated and indoctrinated, with humiliation and violence routinely used to instil unthinking obedience and aggressiveness. This dehumanisation is preparation for dehumanising the enemy. The function of such training is to remove the barriers to killing.

Glenton’s interviews with veterans in this book provide much more detail about this process, which he likens to domestic abuse – an appropriate comparison given that the army likes to market itself as a family. War trauma may compound the damage, he concludes, but it starts with the basic indoctrination process.

“The military also tinkers with our stress responses through those first months of discipline and punishment, steering us… towards instant explosive and aggressive action to a given threat,“ he writes. “Military discipline does the rest of the task of holding you in check. In the right context, this deep sense of urgency has a perfectly sensible function. It is meant to keep you alive. If you act properly, and follow your training, you are more likely to live… If the system works and you survive, you may come to believe… that it is a perfect system. This may explain why so many Blazers, the vocal conservative faction within the UK military community and the opposite of the critical veteran, think militarising everything from education and policing through to prisons and immigration is a top-notch idea.”

Glenton likens the military to a gang. Many veterans celebrate the comradeship and regard outsiders, civilians especially, with disdain – as indeed they were trained to: the army is very good at creating hierarchies of contempt.

The public view of veterans has changed in recent years. Less than twenty years ago, some pubs refused to serve service personnel. Today, public derision has been replaced with “an ignorant though heartfelt affection.” Much of this is because “the press, military and charities connived deliberately and energetically to develop a heroic narrative.”

In government, it was New Labour that began the project to popularise the military. Glenton describes its 2008 Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of Our Armed Forces as an “instruction manual for militarists looking to secure public support for war.”

It echoes the official US approach to encouraging popular support for the military. This was developed following the US defeat in Vietnam, when, rather than recognise the unpalatable fact that the most powerful army in the world had been beaten by a communist force of an ‘inferior’ race, an alternative myth was propagated. This was a fictitious narrative of betrayal, where women and hippies especially treated soldiers with contempt on their return. In reality, Glenton notes, the original anti-war protestors were veterans – not just on the streets, but while serving: military jails were full to the brim.

The ‘stabbed in the back by politicians’ myth is now being resurrected to explain the US’s defeat in Afghanistan. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May had her own version of this when she declared to the Conservative Party Conference in 2016: “We will never again — in any future conflict — let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave — the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces.” Boris Johnson’s Overseas Operation Bill and his attempts to protect Northern Ireland veterans from prosecution are the logical outcome of this rhetoric.

But for all their publicly displayed concern for veterans, governments rarely have their material interests at heart. An estimated 16,000 ex-military personnel are homeless or in prison. The idea of a ‘land fit for heroes’ has been around for over a century, yet has rarely been delivered – especially when race gets in the way: consider the Gurkhas’ fight for full pensions or the Fijian veterans who were denied citizenship. The treatment of the Pacific Nuclear Test veterans and those afflicted by Gulf War Syndrome and Lariam poisoning has also been appalling. As one retired soldier told Glenton: “A veterans’ utopia would be a country where they don’t actually have to join the army in the first place.”

There’s lots more in this book, including plenty of humour and some sharp observations about people who inflate their military career for various purposes, but usually to make money. He is particularly scathing about how establishment figures become “veterans’ champions”, from Field Marshal Haig to today’s Prince Harry – primarily as a way of suffocating the potential radicalism of ex-service personnel. Even Labour Friends of the Forces “is a Blairite cabal, resurrected by Sir Keir Starmer in 2020 and populated by Blue Labour nativists, ex-Ruperts and senior NCOs with ambitions to keep or attain influential roles in the Labour Party.”

I say “service personnel” rather than “servicemen”, but in fact this book is almost entirely about men. Is the veteran identity an exclusively male phenomenon or do former servicewomen also feel defined by their experience in the military? It’s a gap in an otherwise wide-ranging and richly informative book.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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