“A coward and a malingerer”

This time two years ago, Lance Corporal Joe Glenton delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street asking Gordon Brown to withdraw British troops from Afghanistan immediately. Glenton, from York, was facing a preliminary court martial for refusing to return to Afghanistan after a tour of duty there, going absent without leave from the Army for over two years and attending a number of anti-war rallies. He wrote that “the war in Afghanistan is not reducing the terrorist risk, far from improving Afghan lives it is bringing death and devastation to their country. Britain has no business there.” At the time, Glenton was the only known serving soldier in the Army to publicly express a moral objection to the presence of the British armed forces in Afghanistan.

Conscientious objection in the UK armed forces is a complex and little-known concept, and one which has attracted controversy in the past. As all involvement in the armed forces in this country is voluntary, many servicemen and women, as well as the general public, assume that conscientious objection must be a thing of the past, a bulwark against conscription for which a voluntary military system has no requirement. Moreover, the armed forces by nature are supposed to be apolitical, and a person’s time of service within them unaffected by ideological principles. However, when a serving member of the Army, Navy or Royal Air Force truly finds that they can no longer carry out their work in good conscience as a result of some religious, political or moral objection to it, they can still apply to leave the armed forces under Instruction 006 as a conscientious objector.

Joe Glenton joined the Royal Logistic Corps in 2004, but became disillusioned after one tour of duty, believing the Army’s presence in Afghanistan to be morally wrong. He has told newspapers that, “when I joined, I was proud of being a soldier, but after I came back I couldn’t see what we had given to the country.” He raised his concerns with his Commanding Officer, but “I was called a coward and a malingerer.” With no knowledge of how to make his objections heard, he fled the country.

That so little is know about conscientious objection is unsurprising; only nine servicemen and women applied to be discharged from the armed forces for reasons of conscientious objection between 2001 and 2010, and only six had their discharge requests granted. The application procedure is similar in all three branches of the armed forces, although there are some slight variations. Application begins with a written statement to the objector’s Commanding Officer detailing the reasons for conscientious objection along with written evidence to support the case. In the Army this is accompanied by a report from the unit padre or chaplain, although in the Navy and Air Force non-religious objections can be accompanied by an alternative
reference. The case is then decided by an administrative body within the armed forces – either the Army Retirement Appeals Board, the RAF Personnel Management Agency or an administrative authority within the Navy. Rejected applications can be appealed through the Advisory Committee of Conscientious Objectors (ACCO), significantly the first independent body that a conscientious objection instruction will see.

However, this procedure, in the Army known as Retirement or Discharge on Grounds of Conscience, is kept “very very quiet” by military authorities. The option of conscientious objection is not set out in any legislation and nor is it mentioned to armed forces personnel in their terms of service. Until a Freedom of Information request in August 2007, the regulations governing conscientious objection weren’t even in the public domain. There are increasing numbers of people, particularly within campaigns focusing on ethics within the military, who believe that the Armed Forces Bill currently passing through Parliament ought to be used to more clearly outline the procedure and practice of leaving the armed forces as a conscientious objector. The campaign group War Resisters’ International have argued that “It is almost impossible to describe the practice in the last years – or even decades – as the entire system is almost unheard of.” Glenton too feels that the profile of conscientious objection needs to be raised substantially within the armed forces. “I get people now who are more aware of the fact that they can register through this Instruction 006… [that] it is a right. I didn’t know that when I said I wanted out of [the war] and I that wasn’t willing to go.”

The ingrained scepticism, and in some cases even intolerance towards conscientious objection in a voluntary military is easily uncovered. Some of the comments on forums about conscientious objectors within website The Army Rumour Service are justifiably questioning (“maybe they… want no part in foreign adventures started by untrustworthy politicians for dubious purposes?”… ”I’m inclined to be sceptical about people in an all volunteer army who suddenly find a conscientious objection to bearing arms.”) Others however are outright aggressive; “I think the death sentence is showing a bit too much importance to this waste of rations.” What very few take into account is that soldiers, just like civilians, have the right to question what they see and do and, more importantly, the right to question what is being done on their behalf. They also have the right to change their mind when new information comes to light.
This is what happened to Michael Lyons. After joining the Navy in 2005, his moral acquiescence with the war in Afghanistan was shaken upon reading various military documents released by Wikileaks. Lyons told ACCO that, “I came to the conclusion I couldn’t serve on a moral ground and I couldn’t see any political reason for being there.” After initially registering a conscientious objection to the war in Afghanistan, Lyons was “mocked” for his opinions and, as his wife revealed in an interview with the Guardian, “we quickly found the Navy’s chain of command didn’t know how to deal with Michael’s fears.

“The Navy denied his claim that he was objecting to the war on grounds of conscience, and gave no reason why. He was ordered to see a chaplain, even though Michael is an atheist, and the chaplain’s statement implied Michael had a slight political reservation, not a moral objection.”

Lyons appealed the judgement in December 2010. He is currently awaiting court martial for “wilful disobedience” after refusing to participate in rifle training while his request for discharge was being decided. If convicted he could face up to ten years in prison.

Many anti-war campaigns have accused the armed forces of making an example out of Lyons to put others off registering objections. Others see the confusion and secrecy within the registration procedure as damaging to servicemen and women and their basic human rights. Emma Sangster, Co-ordinator of campaign group Forces Watch, says: “the law grants us all the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The government and the Ministry of Defence repeatedly fail to recognise this right when it comes to members of the armed forces.” Her sentiments are supported by Lyons; “being in the military, most people’s view was you just have to go out there and do what you’re told to do. I came to the conclusion I couldn’t serve on a moral ground ­and I couldn’t see any political reason for being there.”

The new Armed Forces Bill would for many ideally include a simplified procedure for conscientious objection, written in legislation rather than forces regulations. It would ensure that the right to conscientious objection is mentioned in the Notice Paper and that objectors who apply for discharge are suspended from duty while the application is considered. The Bill’s second reading – a general debate on all aspects of it – is scheduled to take place in a few weeks on 6 July. So far it seems unlikely that Defence Secretary Liam Fox will heed requests to clarify an already existing law, despite the fact that the simplification would result in a fairer system for everybody, and most likely reduce the number of people leaving the armed forces as deserters or through other illegitimate means. As Sangster asserts, “by amending the Armed Forces Bill, Parliament can ensure the right to conscientious objection is mentioned when new recruits sign up, that information about it is readily available and those who apply are taken seriously.”