Reading like a fast-paced novel, Joe Glenton’s endlessly quotable memoir heralds the arrival of a writer of serious talent. It is also one of the most effective demolitions of the military myth I have ever read.
Glenton joined the army in 2003. “I was a chump ready-made for the army, indifferent, apolitical and working-class”, he notes. In 2006 he completed a tour in Afghanistan at NATO’s largest base. “Kandahar was choking with dust and full of Americans”, he writes about his time distributing ammunition and moving coffins around. The book is chockfull of these kinds of brilliant, short Hemingwayesque sentences. Over the course of his time in Afghanistan Glenton came to oppose the war realising “we were not guests, but invaders.”
Returning to the UK he was soon ordered back to Afghanistan. Receiving no traction after raising his concerns about the war within the command structure, Glenton went AWOL. Suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder he travelled around South-East Asia and Australia, where he met and married his wife. After two years on the run he decided to return to the UK to face the music – and campaign against the war. “I had a duty to try and expose and hinder the war effort”, he explains.
Back in uniform, Glenton leads a bizarre double life. By day he is back at the barracks. But during evenings and at weekends he speaks at anti-war meetings and leads anti-war demonstrations. With the military frustrated by this very public airing of dirty laundry in 2010 he is jailed for nine months (serving five) on charges related to going AWOL and talking to the media.
Glenton’s caustic, dry wit is evident throughout Soldier Box making for many laugh out loud moments. “I was interviewed by a leftist newspaper. It took two weeks for military intelligence to find it”, he quips. His literally voice is both refreshingly original and informal. Reading the book is like having Glenton explain how the world really works over a quiet pint in the local. Glenton himself is also gloriously free of the faux-polite pretensions of the political elite. In fact he clearly revels in sticking two fingers up at it. Take, for example, his sarcastic take-down of the “jingo-addled Morlocks” on the internet who criticised his refusal to return to Afghanistan: “That they had to untangle themselves from their swinging tyres to press ‘post’ is a testament to the emancipatory potential of social media.” A future career as a stand-up comedian surely beckons.
Beyond the humour the book packs a real emotional and political punch. It reminded me of the best of the Vietnam War memoirs – Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July and Tim O’Brien’s lesser-known but equally outstanding If I Die In A Combat Zone.
Having escaped from the Soldier Box – “the ideological compartment in which the military existed” – Glenton, 31, is now a prominent anti-imperialist activist. And an effective one too – his recent appearance on BBC Hardtalk is like a training video for how progressives should conduct tough interviews. “We can’t understand the world in the vocabulary of a Flashman novel”, he replies when the BBC’s Stephen Sackur solemnly asks him to remember those soldiers who have “fallen… for Britain”. However, the main target of Glenton’s anger is not the establishment patsy Sackur but imperialism. Or more precisely “what imperialism does – killing people, destroying things, taking their stuff, trying to subjugate them.”
Soldier Box. Why I Won’t Return To The War On Terror is published by Verso, priced £12.99.