- Interview by
- David Broder
Remembrance Day this November 11 saw the funeral of Dennis Hutchings, a veteran of the British army’s campaigns in Northern Ireland. With Hutchings’s coffin flanked by official Ministry of Defence pallbearers and the ceremony addressed by former veterans minister Johnny Mercer, it might have looked like he was a national hero. Yet at the time of his death, Hutchings was on trial for the 1974 killing of John Pat Cunningham, an unarmed man with severe learning disabilities, shot five times as he fled, frightened, from a British patrol.
The media sympathy for the elderly Hutchings — it even being claimed that his human rights were being violated — illustrated how the politics of “honoring veterans” can be used to erase the actual victims of British Army crimes. Yet Joe Glenton insists in his new book, Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life, not all veterans are happy to be used for this propaganda. A well-known military refusenik, jailed in 2010 because he would not return to fight in Afghanistan, Glenton emphasizes that working-class recruits often grow disaffected with army life — and that jingoist veterans’ groups don’t speak for everyone.
Glenton spoke to Jacobin’s David Broder about the rise of nationalist pageantry around veterans, ex-military personnel’s identification with the army as an institution, and soldiers’ historical role in the wider working-class movement.
Veteranhood starts with scenes of anti–Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in London making a big show of veteran involvement, and veterans are usually addressed in British politics as determined nationalists seeking recognition for their “service.” How realistic is this picture of their politics — and why did you want to write this book?
My book was inspired by two of the least inspiring things imaginable: Sir Keir Starmer and a fascist riot.
The 2020 anti-BLM demo where fascists, “football lads,” and ex-military hard men flooded into Whitehall to “defend” statues came first. Then, weeks later, came Starmer’s declaration on Armed Forces Day that his post–Jeremy Corbyn Labour would once again be welcoming to military people — as if the merest whiff of mild reformism had had every veteran running for the hills. I realized these two visions broadly captured the mainstream view of who veterans are. I wanted to contest these notions because they don’t do us justice.
Beyond that, Veteranhood is a distillation of ten years as a veteran and a journalist covering defense and before that, years in the ranks of the British army. I wanted to write about ex-military life at the heart of a dead empire. I felt my name was being taken in vain by centrists and Tories and worse — partly because all armies, including my own, have always produced left-wing agitators. Many a radical learned how to organize, hate the ruling class, and shoot straight in the ranks.
After many years interacting with what I call Blazers — very right-wing veterans — my sense is that the sheer intensity of their bleating about being ex-forces can mislead us as to their strength. I cite a Kings College study that suggests those most likely to really cling to veteran identity — and to mistake being a veteran for a whole personality — are men with lower educational attainment. Angry ones, I’d add. This cohort seems to get a lot of the airtime, perhaps because it fits the dominant idea of what we are, think, and want.
I’d suggest many veterans have no real politics at all. Anecdotally, they probably have a touch of the kind of ex-military sense of entitlement we see among Blazers but would find a lot of the super far-right stuff repulsive and — this is important for military people — attention-seeking. This also goes for the cosmic anti-vaxxer cohort of ex-forces people, who have increased in number.
Then there are currents like Veterans for EU: Remainers in berets — who, by dint of their institutional experience, and unusually for liberals, are actually quite funny and left-wing. Beyond these are the radicals — a key focus of the book, who we find in every generation from World War II to Afghanistan. They’re present in every current of left politics: radical independence movements, trade unionists, lefty Labour, Trots, communists, anarchists, Irish republicans, Northern independence folks, radical green types, the lot. They’re what I term “critical” veterans — thinking veterans, the inheritors of the radical military tradition from the Putney Debates to today.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the army produces all kinds of people. I’d be willing to accept — there’s no serious polling — that a majority may be some sort of Tory. Many will be vanilla centrists. I’m mostly trying to speak to the more percussive elements on the further left and right. But these others are unmistakably present.
There’s been a recent push to identify “standing up for our boys” with removing any accountability, as with Dennis Hutchings. What do you think explains why this is happening now?
First, the state endorsement of a man on trial for murder showed complete contempt for the family of John Pat Cunningham. It felt to me like trolling. Mercer, a key player in the legacy allegations row, is a recurring figure in the book and a perfect window into officer-class mentality.
Simply put, the Tories are legislating on behalf of Britain’s future war criminals, while also trying to see off the literal ghosts of empire and colonialism. This is where the “stop prosecuting our troops for doing their jobs” tripe comes from. Where there is a problem, it is inept investigations by the military police and the like. But the idea that we are a witch-hunted minority is mostly guff.
Things like the Overseas Operations Bill are about inoculating the British state against justifiable litigation, not saving “our boys” from vexatious lawyers. This deranged bill — and likely the separate Northern Ireland Bill — will also strip squaddies and veterans of their right to hold the Ministry of Defence to account. Remember that at one point, for every case an Iraqi brought for abuse by military personnel, twenty were brought by British troops and veterans for injury from negligence and so on.
The tragicomic thing is that many veterans are so inured to the Tory narrative of their own victimhood, they will get out the Butcher’s Apron [a nickname for the Union Jack] bunting and cheer along as their own rights are stripped away.
Part of Labour’s problem is that it lacks organic connections to defense that the Tories have. At the same time, Starmer’s Labour is desperate to appeal to a largely imagined sub-constituency within its own favorite fantasy universe: basically, an imaginary Red Wall dweller called Ken who did a tour of South Armagh in 1972 and whose profile picture is a Knight Templar wearing a Northern Ireland medal and a red poppy. The truth is Ken doesn’t like you, Keir. He has a party already. It’s called the Tory Party.
Moreover, while there are few things over which left- and right-wing veterans agree, most agree that Tony Blair is basically Satan’s representative in the material realm. So, treading in Big Tony’s footsteps may not serve Labour well with the ex-forces set. Quite a few of us spent quite a bit of time over the last twenty years crunching around in the sand on account of Blair’s martial urges. And few of us are happy about it. . . .
You write that Britain’s ruling class doesn’t love its soldiers, but the heroization of veterans makes them “moral force multipliers” for militarists acting in their name. But this is also a question of veterans’ ability to speak for themselves. You tell us that in 1945, veterans had stronger communities, even organizations, to go back to, than today. What does that mean, in terms of veterans asserting collective, political demands?
Ex-military federations are one thing. There’s a long, grand history of those, like the post–World War I NUX (National Union of Ex-Servicemen). I hope these are reprised, but that’s harder to do with veterans of a small professional army. As pressing, but different, are unions for serving armed forces personnel.
For a good example of why these are needed — and the resistance to them — look at the scandal about teenage recruits being beaten at Britain’s grotesque child soldier factory, Army Foundation College Harrogate. Alongside that, there’s a scandal about astonishing levels of sexual violence and harassment against women in the military. There’s also the ongoing saga of military mental health. These are just three of many live issues. In any normal workplace, you at least have the option of maybe organizing in a union to protect yourselves against your uncaring, exploitative, sexually and physically abusive bosses. In the military, that’s illegal.
Recently, there was a debate in the House of Lords in which the idea of an armed forces federation came up — as it regularly has in recent years. The proposal is for a very mild form of union without the right to strike. Naturally, a dusty old Cold Warrior named Lord Michael Boyce — formerly Admiral Boyce — starts arguing that introducing this miniscule safeguard would be like posting Soviet commissars around the fleet.
A generation of servicepeople are once again asking to not be abused and raped and for an atom of accountability. But there is always some sozzled wrecker ready to jump in and suggest these extremely basic requests are, in fact, an attempt to collectivize Her Majesty’s aircraft carriers. The idea of the Red Flag flapping above the deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth is certainly seductive, but nobody’s asking for anything like it. People just want — and deserve — a dignified working environment where possible, and these protections could provide that.
As I explain in the book, working-class personnel and veterans in the world wars were far more likely than today to come from communities with a powerful sense of their role in the economy, with traditions and experience of class solidarity and trade unionism. It made them more formidable opponents to the officer class than personnel today whose lives have been shaped by individualism, Thatcherism, and so on.
I really feel that military trade unionism is an idea whose time is approaching. But it must emerge from below, as ever.
Veteranhood is very funny, like when you discuss ex-marine Ant Middleton — a hard-edged self-help guru who expressed his hope that after dying at age 100, captain Tom Moore would “rest in positivity.” While Middleton is an outlandish figure, he expresses recurrent themes: self-medication, repression, “be your best self,” and “post-traumatic growth.” Is it involvement in a disciplinary institution that makes these kinds of individualist ideas appealing?
First, the military is often hilariously funny. It projects an image of discipline and order, but it is chaos. So, it wouldn’t be an honest portrayal if the book wasn’t also riotous and didn’t make fun of everything, including the author.
The rising military influencer trend is basically a collision of terrible ideas: revanchist warrior creed meets the Chicago School meets Zen fascism.
On a very basic level, we must ask: Are the people who lost the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite dominance on every military spectrum, really the people to dish out life advice? Can they supercharge your Bitcoin scam? Can former Navy SEAL Hank McMassive’s ten-point warrior code get you through a long shift in a Nottingham call center? Should you buy their new brand of Predator Drone Coffee?
I argue, probably not.
Moreover, are people who’ve spent their entire careers in a planned economy, who’ve built public personas off taxpayer-funded adventures, well-positioned to moralize about idleness or the nanny state?
National militaries, as one former US marine tells me in the book, are the biggest “welfare queens” going. Professional armies have bottomless budgets, huge waste, and little return in the sense of meaningful public good.
As I alluded to, one outcome of military experience can be a kind of retreat into weird nostalgic warrior ideas about being modern-day Spartans or Vikings. It’s the search for a morally black and white world — a search forced by trauma. The trauma partly flows from the fact that the military lens you’ve been rigorously trained into using cannot explain the complexity of real life.
But in the case of military influencers, it is always fused with an impulse for neoliberal self-flagellation. Everything is on you. If you are poor, it is because you are lazy. Be more warrior. “For just £99.99, I can show you how. . . .” Naturally, the online veteran-sphere also produces noxious gusts of Jordan Peterson–style pseudo-profundity for the clammy incel market. I spent a lot of my research time looking at ex-forces’ Facebook pages, wanting to scream, “Trev, you’re a telecoms engineer from Leicester who did six years as a navy clerk, not a samurai.”
And none of this really reflects the internal life of the military, where you are basically guaranteed to be fed, housed, clothed, and given medical care. Let’s recall the UK and US militaries market themselves as extensions of the welfare state as well as engines of social mobility, and in some loose sense, there is truth to this.
Middleton is a good example of the Live, Laugh, Love, KILL influencer. A boy soldier, brutalized by bullying NCOs (non-commissioned officers), ends up in the Special Forces and goes on to become a toxic positivity snake oil salesman with a global following. And all the time he is trying to interpret the world through this useless lens — the lens of the military hard man — and being “canceled” (at least, in his mind) for saying poorly thought-out things about BLM, about powering through COVID-19 as an act of sheer Nietzschean will, and so on.
You talk about the solidarity that comes from intense shared experience, while also highlighting some of its negative, repressive aspects. But what reactions did you get from other veterans to your involvement in Veterans for Peace (VFP)?
I spent a few years in VFP UK during its height. The reaction we got probably speaks to how ingrained ideas about veterans being right-wing by default have become, though very often the worst jingoists were civilians. Military people were quite often okay with us because, although we sometimes disagreed, we had a shared base of experience.
In the book, I talk about Walting — a kind of vicarious military cosplay known as “stolen valor” in the United States. You’ll have seen the backlash when some dude dresses up as a soldier despite having never been one.
Early on, as anti-war veterans, we were sometimes accused of being Walts by right-wing vets and war-horny civvies. This is a fundamental misreading of what we were — notwithstanding the fact VFP was founded by an ex-SAS (Special Air Service) guy and was well populated with marines, paratroopers, and people decorated for valor. Not that we cared about these zombified military hierarchies ourselves.
But our entire schtick was you can’t steal valor when there is no valor to steal. That the martial fantasia that grips Britain, and some veterans, is precisely that: a fantasy. That there was no glory in war or in being in the military. For some, this position triggers a sort of cognitive dissonance when it is espoused by veterans, and so, at times, lacking the conceptual range to explain our existence, our critics accused us of being fake veterans. Bizarre, I know. But this is a bizarre set of people we’re dealing with.
On a personal level, I’m still occasionally treated to veterans lobbing drunk 3 AM messages into my DMs saying I have betrayed “the Fallen” and that I’m an unpatriotic rascal and so on. It’s hilarious to think that of all the actors involved in, say, the “war on terror,” it is I, a lowly former lance corporal from a deeply unglamorous corps, who has betrayed anyone. Not the rogues’ gallery of politicians, generals, and arms firms CEOs who pushed for the wars, but me: some random soldier who said, “Hang on, I think this war might be bullshit, lads.” A view that — and I’m not crowing — was borne out this year with the fall of Kabul.
Last year, a book called The Hardhat Riot argued that the construction workers’ attack on an anti-war protest in 1970 was the beginning of a US “white working-class revolution” against the Left culminating in Donald Trump. It’s striking how anti-war movements are continually cast as middle-class, even when they’ve often come from within the military itself. But you also write of a problem on the Left, seeing soldiers as “class traitors” akin to cops, and there also seems to be a strong cultural split, partly due to background and education. When do you think the connection was lost?
It is hard to say when the older sense of a communitarian veteranhood was lost. It’s partly the story of transition from conscript armies to professional ones. Additionally, myself and my many interviewees felt like Ireland and the Falklands are key to the shift in ideas about the military. Certainly, the latest wave of Help for Heroes [a UK charity for wounded veterans] militarism has compounded the sense that the military firmly belong to the right wing.
I speak to the working-class squaddie/bourgeois leftist collision at length in Veteranhood, and we should unpick some aspects here.
The British establishment assessed a problem in the mid-2000s: The wars were unpopular. They thrashed around trying to explain this. One less convincing argument was that as the conscripted generations grew old and passed away, people simply didn’t know enough veterans. The ruling-class assumption was that if people did know more ex-forces personnel, those military men and women would have said war is great, a sort of bracing exercise, that we should have as much war as possible. Hence, unconvincing. Few veterans of any political standpoint would suggest something so crass.
Yet there is a germ of truth here. As World War II and National Service veterans have aged, knowledge of what the military does and is has declined. Everyone was touched by the military back then, either directly or through relatives. Today, people don’t even seem to know the vast difference between a commissioned officer and a non-commissioned soldier.
The Left, especially the middle-class left, has this issue in its own way. The military is a distant organization for them, especially the lower ranks — whereas for working-class people, the army looms very large as a career option. Plus, Uncle Bob was in the Fusiliers, cousin Steve was in Iraq, Auntie Carmen did a stint in the RAF (Royal Air Force). I suspect this decay of knowledge has led to all kinds of weird and simplistic ideas taking hold: Soldiers are basically like cops in, for example, their relationship to capitalism and the state (when was the last time you saw a homeless person huddled in a London doorway with a sign saying “hungry ex-cop”?); or, soldiers all enlist because they really just want to kill anyone they can get their hands on, or because they are inherently fascistic.
This kind of hot take strips out any kind of materialist analysis about why people join the military or how the institution functions. It isn’t reasoned. It’s essentialist, bone-idle thinking. It’s the politics of the Uni Soc poser who has skim-read a bit of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon. It’s the performative shithousery of a Shropshire softboi swotting up to impress nobody but himself at the Empire and Colonialism module seminar. It isn’t good politics. It’s trash.
For some reason the project of reason and inquiry — which the Left claims to defend — often seems to be suspended when it comes to military personnel. Military humans, serving and former, are often formulated as an undifferentiated and murderous right-wing bloc, merged into the military as an institution. I’m merely suggesting this is an intellectually slovenly position.
For sure, we should be nuanced. There are groups for whom an antagonism towards British servicemen is explicable. For example, people from Irish Republican communities who are directly or generationally traumatized. It’s just that, as a working-class veteran and anti-imperialist who did jail time for the cause, I’m more likely to take lip from people like these who’ve actually heard the proverbial crack of a rifle.
The other side of this is that ex-rankers are often very acutely aware of class, albeit in a raw, lived way. They may have spent years being told what to do by Lieutenant Hugo Chinless-Wonder who can’t read a map properly but is suddenly in charge of thirty hard-as-nails soldiers.
So, if you then arrive in the Left, coming into what are meant to be working-class movements, as an angry veteran — and this was the case for me — you may completely understandably take exception to the class enemy already being there in battalion strength. And you might take even more strenuous exception to Tarquin or Poppy, whose entire origin story is simply being born and then going to university, passive-aggressively mugging you off over something some geezer called Vladimir Lenin uttered in 1911.
I’m being slightly mischievous here. These days, I have rather come to terms with this terrain as a working-class veteran. I have mates who were officers and mates who are declassed socialists. That said, one lesson of Corbynism is that while it’s fine to have middle- and upper-class socialists involved, there is absolutely no reason why they should be in charge, or, God forbid, in positions of undue, unelected influence.
Skin in the game matters to us. It is part of the radical ex-military working-class composition. And, as I argue in my book, good luck convincing the millennial generation of left-wing veterans to take orders from the officer class — or their kids.