The price of pacifism: Refusing to go to war is finally being recognised as a brave act

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On Saturday, the Independent Magazine featured this excellent article on conscientious objectors. From the Second World War refusenik to the 19-year-old Israeli, Holly Williams spoke with five people who risked shame and suffering to take a stand as conscientious objector. Joe Glenton was one of those conscientious objectors - here is his interview:

There’s a 99-year history of objectors -  
Joe Glenton, Afghanistan

Joining the British Army is, obviously, voluntary; but leaving before you've served your time – even if you've undergone a complete change of moral conviction – is not so simple.

There is an established process for coming forward as a CO, but many soldiers may be unaware it is their right.

Joe Glenton joined the Army in 2004, and was on tour in Afghanistan for seven months, from early 2006. During that time, he began questioning what exactly they were doing there. "We knew civilians were being bombed, we knew this operation that had started under the banner of peace-keeping, peace-building, providing security, just drifted straight into war-fighting," he explains, adding wryly that "we ran out of ammunition at one point during this 'peace-keeping' operation…".

On his return to the UK, and after further reading, research and reflection, he became increasingly concerned that Afghanistan was "part of a much broader project in the Middle East and central Asia.

I pillory people who go 'It's all about oil', but there is that: obviously Afghanistan is geo-politically important, and there are 90 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian Basin…"

Glenton was also suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), after a mortar strike hit near his camp. "So there was that emotional, traumatic stuff, but fundamentally I was opposed to the war. Later, I had more of a politically-informed objection, but initially it was, 'I have a sense that what is going on here is wrong and I don't want to be in it'." He is, however, clear that his objection was specifically against that war; he doesn't consider himself a pacifist: "I still think force, even armed force, has a place, potentially – but that's not it".

In the face of this gradually strengthening conviction, he planned to just keep his head down; he wasn't due to go back to Afghanistan again anyway. But in 2007, Glenton was told he would have to return. He refused, declaring conscientious objection. He claims this led to bullying from his superiors. At a very low ebb, partly due to the PTSD, he retreated into himself. And faced with having to return to Afghanistan, he panicked and went AWOL. "A huge amount of AWOLs are because guys come back from tour damaged and there's no provision for them. That was me; I hoofed it," he acknowledges.

After two years, he returned, and a charge of AWOL was ramped up to desertion and talking to the media (he had become an anti-war activist). In the end, these latter charges were dropped – but he still got nine months in Colchester military prison.

There, Glenton says he received support from other inmates – and even guards – who had their own doubts about the war, plus hundreds of letters of encouragement and fortnightly protests outside the prison from people who took up his case. While in prison, he worked in the library and learnt how to write essays; on leaving, he began a degree in international relations. He now writes for newspapers (including this one), and has penned a memoir, about to be published.

Partly, this was to raise awareness that you can even be a CO within the British Army. "When we talk about conscientious objection we talk about it in the context of the First World War. And then it disintegrates into this hero-versus-coward thing. But that misses out a 99-year history of people who have refused to fight."

Soldier Box: Why I Won't Return to the War on Terror by Joe Glenton, published this week. 

You can read the Independent's full article here.

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