In America, Britain and the other imperialist countries there has been widespread public opposition to the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2001 millions of people have at some time or other publicly expressed their dissent from the aggressive wars being waged by the imperialist states. Yet there has been little criticism of or attempts to influence the armed forces actually carrying out these military operations.
In Britain the Stop the War Coalition has avoided criticising the British armed forces. It presents them as the innocent tools of the British Government with no culpability for the death and destruction they are causing. The Military Families Against the War wing of Stop the War has actually complained that British troops are getting injured and killed because they are not better equipped. They complain that British military personnel have been injured and killed because they are used to fight illegal and unnecessary wars. But they do not have much to say about all the Iraqis and Afghanis killed and injured by British forces. In general the anti-war movement in Britain has kept away from the armed forces and has not tried to directly influence them. This is a serious error because disaffection among the military would seriously undermine the capability of the British state to wage its imperialist wars.
The Stop the War Coalition, and especially some of the leading elements in it such as the Socialist Workers Party, present British soldiers as innocents abroad, as typically young, working class men from economically depressed areas who have joined up because they need a job and want “to serve Queen and Country”. In addition, those who have suffered physical and mental injuries are presented as “victims”. Some support has been given to the few military personnel who have refused to serve in these wars but no attempts have been made to encourage others to do the same.
During the last two years or so in Britain the Government and media have been waging a massive propaganda campaign to rally popular support for the British armed forces fighting in Afghanistan. No opportunity is missed to parade returning troops through the streets and hail them as “heroes”. Fundraising events have been organised to provide comforts for “our brave boys” on the battlefront. People now turn out in thousands at Wootton Bassett to pay tribute as the coffins containing dead soldiers flown back from Afghanistan are slowly driven down the main street. This occasion has been turned into a major media event. Back around the time of the invasion of Iraq their commanders were advising soldiers not to wear their uniforms on the streets for fear of attracting abuse. Now the opposite is the case. Wearing your uniform in public is a passport to quite a few free drinks.
At the same time the opinion polls suggest that the majority of people in Britain are opposed to British involvement in Afghanistan and want “the boys brought back home”. But why is this? Is it because people are appalled at the death and destruction being brought upon the Afghani people by the British armed forces? Or is it not more likely that it is rising British casualties that is the main reason that British people want the troops out? If the latter is the case then we can speculate how public opinion might change if as a result of the forty thousand extra NATO forces being sent to Afghanistan less British soldiers are injured and killed and more Afghani resistance fighters are killed. It could be that then there would be a shift of British public opinion in favour of carrying on with the war. By not criticising the British armed forces and by not trying to develop dissention within its ranks the Stop the War Coalition has provided an opening for the British state to succeed in greatly increasing public support for its armed forces and the imperialist wars they fight.
The leaders of the Stop the War Coalition say that for it to have seriously criticised British forces would have alienated large numbers of people from the anti-war movement. True, they have objected to British troops maltreating and torturing prisoners in Iraq but this is presented as exceptional behaviour not typical of the British Army. In reality it is all too typical as thousands of people around the world in countries where British forces have been active know to their cost. Stop the War has presented the British military as an essentially neutral entity which can be used for good or evil according to the dictates of the government of the day. This is an opportunist political line which can only serve to weaken effective opposition to the aggressive actions of British imperialism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. By pandering to public opinion, by failing to struggle with people to help them achieve an understanding of the real nature of the British armed forces, Stop the War is effectively helping the British state in its campaign to boost the public prestige of its military. Any short-terms gains in public opposition to the war brought about by avoiding the question of the military are likely to be more than offset by growing public sympathy for the British Army in Afghanistan.
The Social and Political Character of the British Armed Forces
In order to decide how to correctly handle the British military it is necessary to have an understanding of their position in British capitalist society. The capitalist state is the means whereby the ruling capitalist class maintains its domination over the people it oppresses and exploits, both at home and abroad. The most important institution of any capitalist state is its armed forces. As Lenin pointed out, “A standing army and police are the chief instruments of state power.” When its authority faces a very serious popular challenge the capitalist state has to call upon its armed forces to maintain its position. This was very clear in Northern Ireland when from 1969 onwards the British state used the British Army to try to defeat the national liberation struggle being waged by Sinn Fein/IRA. The British armed forces are not and never have been some sort of neutral force. Their purpose is to maintain the rule of the monopoly capitalist class.
In class origin the British military reflect the wider society. Its top commanders are very disproportionately drawn from the capitalist class and higher sections of the middle strata, many of them having been to public schools. They are an integral part of the ruling class and always act to protect the interests of their class, even when this requires them to disobey the commands of the government of the day. Most of the other officers are of middle strata origin and these days many of them have been educated to university level. This brings us to “other ranks”, the ordinary soldiers who constitute the great majority of military personnel. They are overwhelmingly of working class origin and this is one important reason as to why most anti-war campaigners, especially those of left-wing political leanings, are wary of criticising and confronting the armed forces. It is feared that by doing so this will alienate large sections of the working class from the anti-war war movement and push them in right wing political directions.
Consideration needs to be given to the reasons people join the armed forces. Yes, many recruits are from working class areas with restricted employment opportunities and joining up offers security and good pay. But there are other important motives for joining. Some recruits are at least partly motivated by patriotism, a genuine desire, however misplaced, “to serve Queen and country”. A significant proportion have grown up in military families and are carrying on a family tradition of military service. Another attraction is the prospect of learning a skill and taking advantage of educational opportunities. Also there are sporting activities and travel abroad. Quite important is the appeal of finding excitement by getting involved in dangerous activities, especially armed combat. This is an important motive for part-time military personnel such as the Territorial Army. Periods of active service seem to be a welcome contrast from rather dull occupations and lives on civvy street. A few, probably a small minority, actually enjoy hurting and killing people. Probably there are other motives as well but most recruits will be motivated by different combinations of these reasons.
The actual experience of military service can lead to changes in the way it is regarded. Some of those who thought that they would be defending their country are disappointed to find that this is not so. For example, some soldiers felt that they had been misused in the invasion of Iraq to “protect us from Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction” when it turned out that the political leaders knew that he did not have any. Others who joined up for economic and other reasons find that the actual experience of combat is exhilarating and want more. And so on. The point is that not all of the military personnel are the same but embrace a variety of outlooks and responses. These must be taken into account if their commitment to upholding the interests of the British state and ruling class are to be undermined. In the armed forces there is intense political indoctrination of personnel so as to motivate them to keep fighting. The troops have found out that the people of Afghanistan do not want British and other NATO forces there so the politicians and commanders have been pushing the line to the troops and British public that Afghanistan poses a “terrorist threat” to Britain and that is why the Taliban must be defeated. In fact any terrorist threat to Britain from Afghanistan comes precisely because that country has been invaded by the British Army, something they have been doing on and off since 1838.
If we are to reach out and challenge British service personnel about their participation in imperialist wars then we must investigate and understand these people. In particular it is those in the lower ranks we need to reach and who potentially will be more responsive to an anti-imperialist war political line.
Different Lines Towards the Military
The Stop the War line on the British armed forces has already been criticised and it can be characterised as a right deviation, one which effectively strengthens the enemy. Some other people regard the British armed forces as irrevocably committed to upholding the interests of the British ruling class and its state. They say that it is a waste of time trying to generate dissent and opening up the ranks among the military. All these people want to do is to shout “F***off you murdering bastards!”. This is quite incorrect and insofar as it might have any impact would simply serve to strengthen the loyalty of the military to their commanders and alienate relations and friends of those in military service. This is an ultra-left position which also could have the effect of increasing support for the enemy.
The correct approach is to reach out to and challenge military personnel about the war they are fighting in Afghanistan. Many already do have doubts about what they are doing but it is necessary to encourage and amplify such dissent. We need to inform them about the long history of British imperialist interference in Afghanistan. The lies from Brown and Ainsworth that Britain is under threat of terrorist attack from Afghanistan need to be combated. The character of the criminal, drug-running warlord government foisted on the Afghani people and kept in power by NATO forces should be exposed. The suffering that the imperialist armies are inflicting on Afghanis must be emphasised. In order to reach the troops we need to visit, picket and campaign at their bases in Britain. The aim is to encourage them to refuse to fight this unjust, murderous war.
Also it is important to combat the current of public opinion which has been persuaded by the State and media propaganda campaign to see the British troops as “brave heroes”. In particular we need to turn out and demonstrate when units returning from Afghanistan are paraded through the streets. The main target here is the public who should be informed as to the true character of the war in Afghanistan. They need to be told that the real heroes are the Afghanis who dare to resist the invasion of their country by the most powerful military forces in human history. It should be pointed out that for each dead British soldier the Army claims to have killed a hundred or more Afghanis. Attention should be drawn to the death and destruction visited by RAF Harriers on Afghani villages and farms. Any occasion where the military are being boosted, e.g. Armed Forces Day, should be used as an opportunity to oppose British militarism. It is a pity that it was ultra-reactionary Islamicists who proposed a demonstration in Wootton Bassett to commemorate the Afghani dead. Anti-war campaigners should have got in there first.
A few British military personnel have refused to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan but a more collective dissent within the armed forces would have more impact. A concerted campaign to encourage it is necessary. It is very important to develop a campaign to oppose British militarism because other imperialist assaults are looming on the horizon; especially on Iran and Yemen.