Mark Steel: British soldier punished for speaking truth


Politicians and newspapers love to revere a war hero from Afghanistan. It's strange, then, that they haven't got round to Lance-Corporal Joe Glenton, the British soldier who has been arrested for addressing an anti-war protest in October.

When Glenton went out to Afghanistan, he must have been warned he could end up being held in captivity. He can't have expected that would mean getting locked away by the British Army.

His crime was to conclude that the war was making matters worse, it was immoral to carry on fighting and to say this publicly. So they put him in a military jail, presumably to stop him doing it again.

Leave this dangerous felon at liberty and he might refuse to fight in the Congo, in Kashmir, in a re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth; who knows what danger he'd be to the public?

As a soldier, this must leave you in a state of confusion, as I doubt whether the initial briefing includes a section that goes: "Now then, men, during your tour of duty with the British Army, I implore you to remain vigilant and wary at all times of the wily foes known as the British Army."

Glenton might have escaped arrest if he'd been prepared to keep his opposition to the war quiet, rather than speak about his experience openly. Because, as a soldier, he's not supposed to air an opinion about the war.

But every week there are reports in which soldiers tell us we're slowly winning, and none of them get court-martialled. So the real crime wasn't to voice an opinion but to voice the wrong one.

In any case, army leaders make statements about every aspect of the war, to the extent that Richard Dannatt, head of the whole force, criticised the government just before announcing his allegiance to the Tories.

Maybe there's a formula that goes: "Officers of the rank of captain or above shall he be entitled to thoughts. (However, ranks down to sergeant-major may be permitted certain impulses, at the rate of up to three per calendar month)."

It must be hard for a soldier not to hold an opinion on the war, when they can see they're often arming one set of warlords against another, to the extent we call the ones we like the "Moderate Taliban".

Presumably these are the ones who say: "One tower was fine, but we shouldn't have done the two".

There must be signs all round the barracks saying: "You are ordered not to notice that the honest government you're risking your lives to defend fiddled the election so blatantly the UN ordered it to be re-run — or that the heroin production you were told you'd be eliminating has gone up — or that many of the civilians you're here to protect want you to leave.

"You must also be careful not to remember that one of the reasons given for the war was to capture Bin Laden, which we never did. Therefore anyone who sees him must not notice him, as this will serve to dampen morale."

This might be why Glenton described his time in the barracks since his imprisonment by saying: "The response was fantastic. Soldiers shook my hand and patted me on the back. One guy said, 'You're saying what everyone else is thinking'.

"Talking to soldiers in other units, you get the impression that people are questioning why we're in Afghanistan."

This questioning has spread through every layer of society, to the extent that the audience for a recent Question Time in Wootton Bassett, the town that lines the streets for each returning dead soldier, warmed to the arguments of anti-war campaigner Salma Yaqoob.

So the politicians and supporters of the war must be thankful to Anjem Choudary, who planned a march through Wootton Bassett for his group called Islam4UK.

To give him credit, no one could accuse Islam4UK of pandering to Middle England. If one of his supporters suggested, "Maybe we should call ourselves Islam4UK, except for Surrey", he'd probably say "If you're going soft you can sod off and join the Liberal Democrats".

Next week, you assume, he'll announce a parade demanding the ritual slaughter of all kittens live on Blue Peter.

The march allows supporters of the war to define the situation as "sensible Britain" versus militant Islam. But sensible Britain is turning against this war.

Glenton has recently been released on bail, and his court martial takes place in late January — around the same time another participant in war, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, will be giving his evidence to a different inquiry.

So the rules seem to be that if you tell a lie to start a war, you're called up seven years later for a polite government inquiry. And if you tell the truth to stop a war you're likely to get banged up.

To someone somewhere I presume this all makes sense.

[Reprinted from First published in the British Independent.