On Soldiering

by Joe Glenton

I served in the British Army from 2004 to 2010. My career was, as one fellow veteran pointed out, short, shite and treasonous. My soldierly endeavours, another suggested, make me “the nation’s favourite disgrace to Queen and Country”.

While both of these observations are undoubtedly true, it is also right to say that before I became a barrack room lawyer, I was both a keen soldier and a keen observer of soldiers. The war changed all that.

The facts of that change are recorded elsewhere: what I can offer here are some of the facts of living life as a military worker during that period. I have not set out to moralise about the innate (some would argue necessary) thuggishness of military life, just to explain what happens.

It should be noted that a military career is made up of distinct phases, including recruitment, military training, deployment, and so on. I have touched on these but chosen to focus on the lived experience of being a soldier in the British Army in barracks.

Recruitment

There is a scale upon which all recruits to the modern professional armed forces sit in terms of their motivation for signing up. One end is ideological, the other economic. A few people join primarily because they believe that the British military goes about the world righting wrongs, or is centrally concerned with protecting the British way of life. The rest of us join for the money.

In the recruiting office various carrots are dangled by the dusty sergeants – pay, advancement, travel, education, driving licences, chicks-will-dig-you – as you make your way through interviews and tests. When these are done you go to an army camp for ‘selection’ – two days where you undergo physical tests and a medical.

If you pass selection you are given a start date for basic training. Before this date you are formally enlisted. Myself and three navy recruits were brought before a burly marine to take our oaths to the Queen. On a table before us was an enormous leather book, which he said was the contract. He asked us if we wanted to read it; we said no, stuttered our promises, and were from that point effectively the property of Her Majesty.

Training

Known in the UK as Phase 1, the military frames the 12-15 week process as being about military education and instilling the values to make civilians into soldiers.

Years on I can recognise that it is about reprogramming a person through threats of violent discipline to a, instil loyalty to the military gang, b, remove the barrier to killing, and c, ensure obedience to orders without question.

These aims are not in every case fully-achieved but the process normally gets a recruit most of the way there, and has lasting impacts. It has been said that most of the psychological, moral and spiritual damage done to military personnel, or at least a key part of it, is done not in warfighting but in training.

As one former soldier turned social worker pointed out to me, much of what takes place in training and in the field army would be considered domestic abuse in any other setting.

Immediately after basic training recruits undergo Phase 2 training to learn their trade. Infantrymen spend more time being cold and hungry; technical trades like aircraft technicians and the like start their sometimes years-long courses; chefs cook; mechanics learn to fit things onto vehicles; and so on.

My Phase 2 was unremarkable except that it was at Deepcut, a bleak Surrey army camp famous for recruit deaths. Within six months I was posted to my first unit: 13 Air Assault Support Regiment based in Colchester.

Here the differences between training and the field army became clear and the actual rhythms of a military worker’s life become more obvious.

Field Army

There are a minority of soldiers of all ranks who have fully internalised the lessons of training. An opposing minority don’t really care. The rest treat the army as a job, and in many ways, despite all the camouflage and saluting and the fact that not eating breakfast is a crime under military law, it resembles simply that.

Outside of operational deployment and guard duties the army worked an 8am til 5pm day – before retiring to married quarters for those with spouses or, as in my case, battered old accommodation blocks with four- or five-man rooms.

While outwardly the military likes to suggest that it is busy and action-packed, the truth is that, for most trades within the army, often very little is going on. This is partly because many military jobs, not surprisingly, are active only in wartime. The rest of the time is spent in various forms of training, skiving in the block, generally being bored and doing menial jobs like weapon cleaning, checking vehicles, stock-takes and so on. In most units in my brigade there would be an early finish on Fridays when the regiment was at home.

In my unit there were two Squadron (think of squadrons as departments) physical training (PT) sessions a week, one Regimental PT session and Wednesday was sports afternoon. Dress was generally full uniform but with army issue trainers instead of boots. Particular units dedicate time to particular sports – I spent two whole months exclusively on boxing training because my regiment had a reputation for winning tournaments.

Being ‘on the biff’ is common for those who are either genuinely injured or are sick of doing PT. It was a common that up to a quarter of my first regiment would parade separately with their sick notes (biff chits), as the rest of the unit gathered for a run or speed march.

Monday morning’s was a Sergeant Major’s parade and inspection and, I soon learned, the only day you had to have well-ironed kit and reasonably polished boots. One day a week and before major leave periods there would be mass cleaning of the accommodation or ‘block jobs.’

Bullying and intimidation remain common currency but these could be avoided by not being a ‘mong’, by being ‘switched on’, ‘playing the game’, and being a ‘good lad.’ If you salute the right people, do what you are told and engage in some degree of banter and drinking then you will be left alone, at least in your own sub-unit.

Minor breaches of discipline, which were common, drew a range of punishments. ‘Extras’ or extra guard duties were common. Show parades, wherein an offender had to appear in very smart uniform at awkward times of the day, were also often used.

It was still the case during my time that offenders would be offered a choice between an official punishment, which would go on your official report, and physical punishments like a quiet punch in the head.

None of this is to say the army was without joy. You quickly develop a black sense of humour and the ability to find fun in anything to a degree that can be suppressed upon your return to society but never removed. There is ample opportunity, even encouragement, to drink to excess, pursue women, get into fights with rival units, and other tomfoolery.

The military, and military training, is a unique space in society where threats of violence, actual violence, the constant use of shock and fear – through shouting, posturing, physical punishments and lack of sleep – to ensure obedience, are not just tolerated but seen as essential to forming the end product: a soldier. The military use none of these terms and publicly accept nothing of this reality, routinely describing the process as merely ‘robust’.

Combining that environment with a complete lack of unions, economic democracy or class representation and Britain’s professional military is the Tory dream of labour: a cowed workforce that can be subject to more of less arbitrary punishments, with little oversight or opportunity for appeal, as and when it suits the master.

 

Joe Glenton is the nation’s favourite disgrace to Queen and country, a member of Veterans for Peace, and the author of Soldier Box (Verso).

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