As the UK enters another war in the Middle East, James Cracknell talks to Leyton resident Joe Glenton, an Afghanistan veteran who wrote a book about his experiences
In the years following the end of the First World War, veterans would march on Remembrance Day with banners that carried the same message: ‘Never Again’.
The only group still continuing this tradition is Veterans for Peace, a group of ex-soldiers, navy officers, RAF pilots and other former military personnel who have all taken up the cause of pacifism.
Joe Glenton is one such veteran. He completed a seven-month tour of Afghanistan in 2006, but became disillusioned as he suffered post-traumatic stress and refused to return for a second tour. After two years AWOL, the former lance corporal was sentenced to nine months in jail for desertion.
Shortly after his release, Joe moved to Leytonstone, and now lives in Leyton. Since arriving in Waltham Forest he has written a book, Soldier Box, about his experiences in the army. He has also started a new career as a journalist.
So what exactly does a veteran with such a past do on Remembrance Day? “I join up with Veterans for Peace. We walk to the Cenotaph and lay a wreath of white poppies.
“We get a pretty good reception, but last year the coppers wouldn’t let us lay the wreath ourselves because the National Front were on the other side. We had to hand it to a copper to lay it for us.”
It’s difficult to imagine other veterans receiving this sort of treatment. When the British branch of the group Veterans for Peace was established in 2011, by former SAS soldier Ben Griffin, the group began campaigning for UK troops to be withdrawn from the Middle East. But that’s not all they’ve campaigned for.
“Veterans For Peace want Remembrance Day to be taken back to its original form,” Joe explained. “It’s 101 years since the start of the Great War but we are the only group still holding the ‘Never Again’ banner.
“Originally every veterans group held that banner, now we are the only ones carrying it. At the time there was anger and a sense of grief but now it has been flipped from opposition to war and recognition of needless death, to celebrating war.
“I think it has happened in stages. For me, about 10-15 years ago the red poppy still had a sense of sadness and recognising the huge loss of life, but now it has gone into overdrive. There is a PR campaign to parade all veterans as heroes.
“They have succeeded in blurring the argument about war, but in trying to make wars more palatable they have failed. Public opinion was against bombing Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria. I think the red poppy is a very powerful symbol, and it should be because it is about recognising all those who died.
“But a lot of people feel conflicted and that is because it has been hijacked.”
Veterans For Peace is not just made up of deserters. Among the 205 active members of the group are veterans from the Falklands, Malaysia, Northern Ireland, and even D-Day, including some who completed many years of service before later becoming disillusioned.
“We often hear about those who have ‘fallen’,” continued Joe. “The reality is that people get burned alive, shot in the face, blown up. They have not fallen, they’ve been killed.
“We have challenged that and said it is distasteful. We should talk about it as it is. It is disrespectful to say a soldier has sacrificed themself for us, because they don’t want to die, that’s not why you join the military.
“They get called heroes but this obscures all of the problems they have. Many are homeless, divorced, mentally ill. There are soldiers who have done very brave things but they don’t consider themselves heroes, they do things out of instinct.”
As well as their anti-war campaigns Veterans For Peace has established an education programme “to counter the aggressive military recruitment of children”. They also undertake acts of symbolism such as an event last year in which they threw their berets away, discarding what they consider to be emblems of war and violence. They have also previously discarded their medals.
“For some of us the anti-war feeling happens immediately, and for others it takes time,” said Joe. “For me there was no ‘moment’ when I realised I disagreed with war. There were things that alarmed me, and then when you are removed from the situation you think about it differently.
“It is fortunate that I never killed anyone and I am chuffed about that. But when people are killed in a war, it is just seen as normal.”
Joe says Veterans For Peace are politically a mixed bunch, but united around a single cause. “Some of us are Tories, some are Socialists and some are in the middle, but we all agree that armed conflict is not a solution to the problems of the 21st century.
“I personally don’t think you can claim to respect the legacy of veterans and at the same time support cutbacks to the NHS. The NHS was built by the same people who fought back fascism. They remembered their fathers who came back from the First World War into poverty, and wanted something better.”
Joe can often be seen speaking at anti-war rallies, but his day job is writing. In the evenings he can be found at Fitness First in Leyton, practising jiu-jitsu.
“In jiu-jitsu you have to be mentally alert, otherwise you get messed up,” adds Joe. “For me it is a backlash against the military, it is zen.”
For more information on Veterans For Peace:
To buy Joe Glenton’s book Soldier Box: