It may seem a strange preoccupation for a pacifist, but I am very concerned about the injustices suffered by members of the armed forces.
I sometimes despair about the ignorance of the civilian public, particularly the peace movement, about the situation faced by soldiers. Their contracts of employment resemble those of eighteenth-century apprentices.
On 5 March, there was a Stop the War Coalition “Free Joe Glenton” demonstration in Colchester. Some soldiers ran past in formation with heavy packs on their backs. From their apparent ages I judged them to be in what we in “At Ease” (the independent advice service for members of the armed forces) call “the six year trap”.
One of the demonstrators shouted at them “Resign!” It seemed incredible that a supporter at a demonstration outside a court martial for a soldier who had gone AWOL still imagined that soldiers could resign.
If Joe Glenton or any of the thousands who have gone AWOL because of the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq had been free to resign, they would never have gone absent without leave. This morning, as I write, BBC York Radio broadcast a very balanced programme about the issues including an interview with a member of At Ease who did a good job of getting several points across.
No more buying out
However the next interview was with a veteran NCO [non-commissioned officer] from the British Legion who said Joe Glenton did not need to go AWOL because he could have “bought himself out”.
In fact the army abolished “buying out”, or “premature voluntary release by purchase”, in 1991. It is not available to any soldier who joined after that date.
The NCO then repeated this, saying it was easy to buy out for a month’s pay. That was never true, even before 1991. I groaned, because many recruits and their parents join up thinking that if they are unhappy later on they can buy themselves out.
As a pacifist individual I believe that any punishment given to Joe Glenton for his brave actions in opposing the war in Afghanistan is unjust.
However, in terms of usual military practice, he has been treated with surprising leniency. After the first Gulf war in 1991, a conscientious objector, who had gone AWOL only for the duration of that war and, like Joe, had spoken to the media and at an anti-war rally, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and discharge with disgrace.
Joe was in a peculiar legal situation. The Armed Forces Act (2006) created a new offence of going absent without leave with intent to avoid a particular active service posting. This now carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
However this act was not implemented until 31 October 2009. Although Joe went AWOL after the 2006 Act, it was before the 2009 implementation, so he could only be charged with what was an offence before October 2006 and could not have a heavier sentence than was possible before 2006. Any soldier who now follows his example risks a much heavier penalty.