Tip of an iceberg

We must support the rebellions of brave individuals in the military, writes Jim Moody. But collective organisation is the key

Lance corporal Joe Glenton was sentenced on November 18 to 28 days in prison for daring to speak out against the war in Afghanistan and for heading the Stop the War Coalition march on October 24. He faces a possible 10-year sentence if found guilty on charges of desertion and refusing to obey orders. While many in the armed forces agree with him politically, or at least have a certain sympathy for him, his stand is a rare one in modern times. For example, back in April 2006, RAF flight lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith was prosecuted for refusing to go to Iraq. He was sentenced to eight months in civilian prison, fined £20,000 (his life savings), and kicked out of the RAF.

It goes without saying that every anti-war and working class activist must rally to the defence of such courageous individuals. There should be demonstrations outside the army's 'corrective training centre' in Colchester, where he is held, demanding his unconditional freedom. The top brass rightly fears that that he is just the tip of a growing iceberg in the armed forces of those who oppose the war.

However, while the brave actions of a Joe Glenton can have an exemplary effect, it is only when the state is faced with mass, collective resistance from within the armed forces that it will be forced to end the war.

Such collective resistance has a long pedigree. Over 200 years ago, in 1797, the Spithead and Nore mutinies aboard naval ships were triggered by appalling conditions, poor pay and savage discipline. Each crew elected delegates. Not a few of them sided with the French Revolution and opposed British moves to sweep away the internally fractious Jacobin regime by mounting a global naval war. Demands around pay and conditions were overwhelmingly supported at Spithead, forcing the navy bureaucracy and government to concede. All crews were given an unconditional pardon - although the subsequent, more political demands at the Nore, including immediate peace with France and the dissolving of parliament, were rejected. The most noted leaders were executed or transported to Australia.

Immediately following World War I there were numerous mutinies and strikes in the British, Italian, French and German armies. British and empire troops staged demobilisation revolts. On the night of December 9-10 1918, soldiers of the Royal Artillery stationed at the Le Havre base in France burnt down several depots. Suffering atrocious living conditions at Kinmel Park in Wales, on March 4 1919 Canadian troops elected delegates and took over several camps; by the end of that month 30,000 men had been repatriated. But continuing demob delays led to a dozen more mutinies and riots by Canadian troops billeted in Britain in 1919.

Nor did British troops relish the prospect of being sent to quell the Russian Revolution, which the British and 13 other capitalist governments were organising to destroy. Royal Navy contingents refused to fight the Bolsheviks. There had anyway been mutinous discussions on the lower decks in summer 1918, centred on the appalling pittance paid to sailors, who had received only one pay increase (of a penny a day, in 1912) since 1852.

In 1919, mutinies broke out on minesweepers in Rosyth; Navy men prevented the First Destroyer Flotilla from returning to the war in the Baltic; 150 sailors left their ships at Port Edgar upon hearing they were expected to sail for the Baltic; marines were used to disperse sailors demanding leave on the aircraft carrier Vindictive in Copenhagen; minesweeper crews in the Baltic refused to 'turn to' and return to the Gulf of Finland. In January 1919, having been lied to about being demobilised, 20,000 soldiers mutinied in Southampton, taking over the docks and refusing to obey orders.1 By February 1919, large numbers of British soldiers were defying the command to cross the Channel.

Formed in 1919 to combat forces' unrest over slow demobilisation, the 6th Battalion of the Royal Marines was sent first to Murmansk and then to Lake Onega, whereupon it too was hit by mutiny. Two of its companies refused duty, leading to 90 marines being court-martialled. Also in northern Russia, a mutiny in the 13th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment only ended when British officers called in white Russian machine gunners. Nearly 9,000 reservists were recalled to the army in 1919, but were unwilling to be used in the coal strike or in Ireland - so much so that in May 1919 several hundred skirmished with local police in Aldershot.

Political context

Of course, all such rebellions take place within a definite political context. For example, when workers begin to think as a class or feel betrayed as a class, this will inevitably find reflection in the armed forces. The great crash of 1929 derailed the Labour government and split the Labour Party. Prime minister Ramsay MacDonald and other leading ministers defected and formed a 'cuts, cuts, cuts' national government with the Tories and a section of the Liberals. Capitalism was widely perceived as having failed.

In September 1931, sailors from 10 warships moored in the Cromarty Firth off Invergordon learned of proposed pay reductions of up to 25%. Voting for a strike and singing the 'Red flag', the navy men's proposals for action gained escalating support among sailors from the fleet. There was stock exchange panic and concessions were speedily agreed. Ring leaders were, however, jailed and others discharged from the navy. Seeking a scapegoat, the police were given the go-ahead to raid the offices of the CPGB and its paper, the Daily Worker.

World War II again gave rise to democratic demands and political agitation in the British military. In British-occupied Egypt, the Cairo Forces' Parliament met in February 1944, constituted by delegates from army units in the vicinity chosen in 'mock elections'. The official CPGB proved increasingly influential, but in Egypt was firmly committed to the election of a Labour government. Meeting once a week, delegates voted to nationalise the banks, land, coalmines and transport. When Leo Abse, who subsequently became a Labour MP, moved a motion supporting nationalisation of the Bank of England, he was arrested and the assembly was dissolved by order.2

As World War II ended, demands for rapid demobilisation were, as at the end of World War I, backed up by action, including strikes. US military personnel in Germany and the Philippines formed soldiers' committees and demonstrated to be allowed to return home immediately. Christmas Day 1945 saw 4,000 US soldiers marching in Manila to the 21st Replacement Depot behind a banner demanding: 'We want ships!' In January 1946 several soldiers' committees were operating; the Manila committee represented 139,000 US soldiers. On January 8, thousands of GIs in Paris marched down the Champs-Élysées to a rally in front of the US embassy, where they shouted, 'Get us home!' The next day in Frankfurt am Main, speakers at a GI demo declared that their commanding general was 'too scared to face us here'.3

British forces were affected too. RAF servicemen went on strike in India at Cawnpore (now Kanpur) and Jodhpur. The Times reported that 2,000 airmen at Mauripur had began a 'stay-in strike'.4 As one airman involved said, 'There is no doubt in my mind that as a result of that strike the rate of demobilisation quickened considerably.'5 Although some strike leaders were jailed, public pressure, including on MPs, led to early releases or reductions in sentences.

Going forward to the Vietnam war, we see how disenchantment and military failure combined with a growing politicisation. This was greatly helped by the anti-war movement across the world, including in the US itself. Thousands of conscripts exiled themselves. Others ritually burnt their draft cards. Defying the military hierarchy, a many-headed clandestine press grew within the armed forces. Papers were started up all over the US, as well as large US bases abroad, especially in Germany and Japan.

At the start of the Tet Offensive in early 1968 there were no more than 10 papers of the GI press. By that autumn there were twice as many, the number doubling again by the following spring. A peak of 90 or so papers was maintained from the spring of 1970 to the end of 1971. While activists in the army and marine corps dominated the GI press titles, by spring 1972 the number of titles in the airforce and navy was almost on a par.6

The demonstrations in uniform by soldiers and other members of the US armed forces show what can be achieved despite military discipline and the threat of jail. The generals and admirals were unable to keep 'their' men and women isolated from the movement opposing the Vietnam War.

Against the lies spouted by John J Rambo (Sylvester Stallone's character) in First blood, there are absolutely no recorded instances of any organised opponent of the Vietnam war abusing servicemen, verbally or otherwise: it just did not happen. That was because anti-war protesters knew all about the opposition to the war from within the ranks. This has a lesson for us now.

Warmongers of all stripes recently found a heaven-sent gift in the tiny Islamist group, Ahle Sunnah al Jamah - a splinter from the banned al-Muhajiroun - whose supporters shouted 'terrorists' and waved placards saying, 'Anglian soldiers go to hell' and 'Butchers of Basra', as 200 soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment paraded through Luton in March 2009. Yet, whatever the many shortcomings of its Lindsey German-John Rees-Andrew Murray leadership, the Stop the War Coalition has quite rightly promoted Military Families Against the War and refuses to see the rank and file in the armed forces as enemies who should come home in coffins. All serious groups in the anti-war movement recognise full well that those in uniform are in the main drawn from the ranks of the working class and need to be won over to our side if we are going to successfully force a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

'Support our boys'

Many join the armed forces to learn a trade or just to escape the mind-numbing tedium of unemployment. They are in effect economic conscripts. Our task is to give a democratic content to their discontent, frustration, anger and protests. That is why we call for trade union and political organisation in all branches of the military, for free and open debate of all questions without any strictures.

Demands to democratise the forces' command structures are likewise essential, including the election and recallability of officers. If we call for MPs and other representatives to be accountable, the same must apply to those whose decisions may mean life or death.

In addition service personnel must have the right to publicly oppose political decisions. If, as bourgeois politicians often claim, soldiers in Afghanistan reflect a cross-section of UK society, it would be strange indeed if a large swathe do not share with a clear majority of the population an outright opposition to the war. They should have the right to debate and organise politically around the demand for an immediate withdrawal.

Marxists want to divide the armed forces. Those at the bottom have diametrically opposed class interests to those at the top, who overwhelmingly come from within the tiny minority that constitutes the ruling class. We want troops out of Afghanistan now because we oppose all imperialist military attacks, wars and occupations and support the right of peoples oppressed by imperialism to self-determination. US-UK imperialism, however, is not only carrying out a brutal war in Afghanistan - which does not bring democracy, but rather keeps the country in the hands of the landowning tribal elite, backward imams, warlords and corrupt politicians - it has resulted in around 10,000 civilian deaths. More than a thousand coalition troops have also been killed, over 240 of them British. Many more have been dreadfully maimed. Rather than calling for helicopters and better kit and equipment, we communists want them out of harm's way.

That is why we defend Joe Glenton and others like him in the armed forces who are calling for an end to British involvement in Afghanistan. While such brave individuals are to be applauded, however, organised opposition to the war in Afghanistan is the key. Unity is strength in the military, as it is in the workplace.

Websites like ARSS and Rum Ration have shown that there is an appetite for debate and discussion in the ranks - going from daily grumbles to the beginnings of profound questioning. Of course, the ministry of defence and the top brass have choked off these particular forums over the last couple of years. Other ways and means will doubtless be found. Thought cannot be extinguished.