Book review. Veteranhood: Rage and Hope in British Ex-Military Life by Joe Glenton
by Ian Sinclair
31 December 2021
A wide-ranging memoir-polemic, Joe Glenton sees his new book is an attempt “to address the commonly held idea that we vets are all irredeemably right-wing.”
Glenton, who served in Afghanistan with the British Army’s Royal Logistical Corps before going AWOL in 2007 and refusing to fight in the war, proves to be an excellent guide to this complex and often controversial topic, deploying lashings of black humour and military lingo (explained for the uninitiated).
Rather than “a reactionary blob”, he argues the military has always been a contested space, with a rich, though largely unknown, history of progressive dissent and resistance in the ranks. This applies to veterans too, with Glenton and others working in grassroots organisations such as Veterans For Peace UK and Forces Watch.
His brief historical overview of political and social struggles within the military is exceptional, with inspiring pen portraits of the New Model Army in the English Civil War, the radicalising Cairo Parliaments at the end of World War Two, Ahmed al-Batati’s 2020 Whitehall protest against the Yemen War, and other rebellions. Another impressive chapter focusses on the post-9/11 Militarisation Offensive in the UK – the extensive campaign by the government, military, MPs and the media “to stymie criticism of British foreign policy on the home front by popularising the military.” This, he notes, was not planned and run by the Tories, as you might expect, “but by the most violent force in British politics in my lifetime: New Labour.”
Glenton is similarly sharp in his criticism of high-profile military veterans (“either openly reactionary or political mediocre”) and those ex-military figures who end up in parliament, such as former Minister for Veterans Johnny Mercer MP (“the sullen personification of a failed officer corps”) and “NATO-backing” Clive Lewis.
He quotes testimony from other veterans throughout the book, with one comparing large parts of military training and culture to domestic abuse, noting the commonality of “controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour”. As another veteran argues, “It is not just battlefield trauma that causes mental health issues but the conditioning associated with training have a massive part to play.”
Glenton isn’t a pacifist though: he describes his politics as mostly anarchist and libertarian socialist, and explains he would seriously consider supporting UK military action in defence of Palestinians or Kurdish Rojava. And while the book is a radical critique of the institution of the military and how the armed forces are used by the ruling class as an “instrument for imperial violence”, “the Mob” continues to exhibit a pull on him. He clearly has affection for some aspects of military culture, and respect for the men and women who have worn the uniform. “These are not simple lives, and they defy simple interpretations”, he notes.
While some non-fiction books can be a chore to read, Veteranhood, like his award-winning 2013 biography Soldier Box, is full of brilliant writing, with a certain swagger and righteous anger to the prose.
Quite simply, Glenton is one of the most important voices writing about UK military matters today.