By Carl Jaison
The troubling questions ex-soldier Joe Glenton raises are centuries old. At least as old as the rise of the British Empire that was ironically democratic and aggressive - to countries like India - at the same time. From what Joe Glenton has shared in recent interviews and in his just-released book, 'Soldier Box', it looks like he is raising the same questions raised satirically by celebrated thinkers George Orwell and Aubrey Menen during the last century.
The story of Joe Glenton is a refreshing detour from the normal state of affairs. From serving as a British Army Officer stationed at Afghanistan to being labeled as a “coward” and “malingerer” by his senior military officers and countrymen alike, Glenton has witnessed mind-boggling setbacks and adversities in a short career spanning close to only half a decade in service. The 31-year old attracted widespread attention when he publicly refused to render military service in the war-torn Kandahar in Afghanistan, where he earlier discharged his duties as a logistics specialist and driver since 2006. His anarchist stance resulted in him being jailed for 5 months in a military prison after he refused to serve a second tour to Afghanistan on moral grounds.
Typical of any extraordinary character hogging the limelight, Glenton marshalled his military experiences and acts in an autobiographical account titled ‘Soldier Box‘, which hit the bookstores recently , in which he questions the humanitarian obligation of the Crown to the people of Afghanistan. He mustered the courage and audacity to oppose his former employer, the British Government, for their unethical ideology of sending unwilling troops to seize control of an already terror-stricken nation.
The war resistor launched anti-war demonstrations after his jail release demanding that the troops be brought back home. Though he created quite a positive stir among a section of civilians to support the conscripted soldiers’ cause, Glenton is being viewed by the government as a ‘conscientious objector’ who faces serious charges of going AWOL (absence without official leave) and briefing media during press conferences without prior permission.
Joe Glenton was disenchanted both by the objective of exercising military supremacy over a war-ridden state and the continuance of the war which the government conveys, as he puts it, was “to help young girls get education and build infrastructural facilities” in Taliban-dominated regions. However Glenton smelled an imperialistic plot. “Let’s look at probability. Does the US, with Britain in tow, go to Afghanistan to help women go to school or is it because there is, for example, 90 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian?”
Such remarkable revelations coming from a former British soldier implicates a possible conflict of interest between what a soldier is expected to do and what a soldier wants to do. What Joe Glenton wishes to trash away is the hackneyed and clichéd justification of conquering economically and socially deprived lands by imperial powers. Glenton maintains with surety that soldiers on duty too have a mind of their own, rather than blindly following the commands of their superior officers.
There is a misconception that once an imperial soldier dons the role of a law enforcer in a lesser-progressive society, he sells his personalized liberty and free-thinking ability and is thus conditioned to executing his duties under the garb of a stereotypical justification ie to bring law and order to lawless lands. This is precisely the reason why Joe Glenton is not a rebel, but a self-manumitted individual.
The underlying notion of an imperialistic imperative couldn’t hijack the psyche of a person like Glenton, who goes by what his heart says. As defenders of the Crown, British soldiers are handsomely appreciated for their foreign assignments but Glenton believes that serving as guardians of the Queen’s sanctity is simply a veil masking a jingoistic underpinning. He also commented recently on Thatcher’s funeral saying “war is not a fit theme for a funeral”, recalling how the Iron Lady used Falklands war for winning the elections.
What Joe Glenton is saying is nothing new. Great minds like George Orwell and Aubrey Menen had interesting takes on this same vexing issue that has always faced soldiers. Two short-stories written during the height of imperial rule over the Indian sub-continental regions - one of them set in India -‘Dead Man in the Silver Market’ by Aubrey Menen - and the other written by George Orwell as a British officer posted in Burma - ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ - show great parallels with what Glenton has been daringly saying. At conflict is long-held imperial views and the commendable and innate desire of certain officers to relinquish their position of bondage-labour exploited by the regal government.
Aubrey Menen is well-known for his satirical and humorous approach to writing which is testified by the first sentence of Dead Man in the Silver Market - “Men of all races have always sought for a convincing explanation of their own astonishing excellence and they have frequently found what they were looking for." The story is an ironical masterpiece in which the protagonist, a young British officer, justifies the “overpowering of the native population directed towards empowering their senses”. He feels that it was only in their good interest that they were subjected to imperial rule as they didn’t possess the natural capability for governing themselves.
The irony however lay in the fact that this officer, in his childhood days, was a mischievous kid who often broke the rules thereby entailing police action but due to the compulsory military conscription he was required to render by virtue of the government’s order that all able-bodied men be summoned for immediate military obligation. And he is posted in India to maintain law and order. The officer is clearly driven by an imperial understanding of how governance and administration is “bred in yer bones“, which according to him the natives lack.
In ‘Shooting an Elephant’, Orwell takes a completely different stand as opposed to the above British officer’s ‘ideology‘. He too works as a law-enforcing officer but he condemns the British suzerainty and is longing to return back home from this forceful occupation. He awaits the day when the British Empire is coerced to reinstate indigenous rule over the conquered regions stemming out of nationalist struggles. However, the perspective of Orwell is quite prudent unlike his contemporaries. He feels that the “aim of British control was a wholehearted effort not to be laughed at“, an intention which finally undermines his authority as an officer.
An elephant runs amok after it experiences the ‘musth’ (sexual urge) leading to the death of a native man. Orwell is faced with the task of containing the mad mammal. He is followed by a large crowd as he approaches the location where the elephant had been spotted. Orwell realizes that the elephant had calmed down and turned virtually harmless, as it stood at a distance munching on foliage. Orwell encounters a dilemma. The crowd followed him eagerly expecting that he would certainly shoot down the elephant. As an officer, he had every right to fire a shot at it because a human death had been recorded.
However, his conscience beckons him to refrain from killing the beast, which as he puts it, “was what he would have done if not in uniform“. To put it plainly, what the subjects want from him and what he is permitted to do as an officer is the very same thing - the act of shooting the elephant. And he succumbs to the crowd-pressure owing to his requirements as an ‘officer’ which ultimately prompts him to shoot the elephant. Orwell later explains that when an officer assumes responsibility of maintaining ‘law and order‘, it is his own freedom which he parts with.
Neither does Glenton justify British parentage over Afghanistan nor does he allow his mind to remain chained in an imperial lock. Joe Glenton has indeed taken the world by surprise. It is by no means an anarchistic tactic, but an attempt to peel off and expose the long-concealed imperial basis of domination which in a rhetorical sense sounds benevolent.
The loud cries of calling back the troops are fast gaining momentum, which has put Britain and USA in a fix. Joe Glenton has rightfully understood the futility of just following orders, and it is about time that these imposing powers contemplate on their rightful intentions rather than getting exposed for their dubiousness.