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Iraq war? No tanks

This article is over 18 years, 11 months old
James Thorne is a former commander in the Royal Tank Regiment. He was trained at Sandhurst, the elite school for army officers. James came from a military family and joined the army for a career. He served in Cyprus and Northern Ireland. He tells Socialist Worker why he is now opposed to war
Issue 1836
James Thorne

James Thorne (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Why are you against war on Iraq?

None of the justifications that have been put forward stand up, and unless there’s a good reason for it, it shouldn’t be done because it’s going to cost lives. The issue of weapons of mass destruction is hypocrisy. The US and Britain have them.

The term is misleading. It excludes altitude bombing. Why? Because it’s what we use. The reason North Korea is being left alone is because it has a more credible deterrent. The fact that Iraq’s being hassled almost proves they haven’t got weapons of mass destruction.

It’s about oil. It is imperialist and about grabbing resources. The government would like us to choose between Bush and Saddam Hussein. Well, no. They’re both products of US imperialism.

How did you get involved in the anti-war movement?

I’ve been involved in organising since last September. For the first year after the Afghanistan war I was just going to demonstrations. I’ve got some knowledge of organising and setting up networks from my army days. I’m using a lot of what I learnt back then for a much better cause. Before the Afghan War I’d got to the stage of shaking my head at the TV. That war sparked me into action.

Over the summer of 2001 I’d read Captive State by George Monbiot. He’s right to say that we all have to participate more actively if we want democracy. September 11 and the Afghan situation presented a very clear cause. What do people in the army think about attacking Iraq?

The general attitude of the people I know, who are mainly officers, is a kind of shame that Britain’s doing the US’s bidding. They’re all fairly patriotic. These guys read widely and understand quite well what it’s about. Some of them can live with that-others might find it more difficult. Part of the military self image is that they’re tough guys. Everyone knows that the last Gulf War in 1991 was a massacre. That doesn’t fit nicely with their self image.

The father of a friend of mine was a senior officer in the last Gulf War. He felt disappointed because he didn’t feel they’d fought a war. Well, 200,000 dead Iraqis certainly felt like they’d been in a war. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of it, the Falklands War is regarded, as far as the fighting went, as quite ‘glorious’ because it was a tough fight. The US and Britain are planning an ambitious mission this time, including occupying Iraq.

This means it’s going to be Northern Ireland on the Euphrates. A quarter of the British army is being sent to the Gulf. This is a pretty bleak prospect for the troops and their families. When did you start to question the army and war? I’m not a pacifist. I certainly believe there are some things worth resisting, through force if necessary.

Because of the travel you get to see a bit more of the world. You stop believing what the Daily Mail says about foreigners. The army is all about teamwork at junior level. Obviously at the top level it’s based on exploitation. The day to day experience of junior officers and soldiers is one of looking after each other.

Soldiers don’t fight for their queen and country or for the good old regimental traditions. They fight for survival with the guys that they’re with. What armies do is put people in that situation, and of course they have to fight.

I’ve always thought that everyone should look after everyone else, and everyone should work in a team. It doesn’t take long to realise that doesn’t have to be confined to the 20 guys around you. I also read about modern guerrilla wars, Nicaragua for example, because I was interested in tactics. Then you start to come across the politics. I began to think, ‘These communists have a point.’ My values haven’t changed much, but the information I have about the way the world works has come along.

What examples of resistance in the army inspire you?

There was a lot of cooperation between opposing troops during the First World War.

The football matches and Christmas truces are well known, but the troops also colluded in ways that were harder for High Command to prevent. Troops often fired high or routinised their firing. If they always fired their mortars at the same time each day at the same targets, opposing battalions would know to keep out of that area. Who were the enemies in the First World War? People might say the British and the Germans.

I say, isn’t it obvious that working class people from both countries had more in common with each other than they did with the rulers of their own countries? After four years this became apparent to the people doing the fighting. The First World War ended with revolution in Russia, and Germany fought on until it was on the brink of revolution.

British troops were also reaching this stage by 1919, and it’s a proud history. Units that were regarded as elite, like the Royal Marines, mutinied at the Russian city of Archangel.

They were told they were going to defend the Russians from the Bolshevik forces. When they got to Archangel they found they were being used for offensive operations.

Why did you join the army?

It’s something I’d wanted to do since I was young. My dad was in the air force and my brother was in the army. I joined the army in August 1995, straight after I left university.

I joined for a lot of reasons other people do, for the things that the army presents itself as being-a good career, travel, activity, teamwork, problem solving, challenges. I did a year’s officer training in Sandhurst. Then I trained as a tank commander. I left the army in August 1999.

Why did you leave the army?

One of the reasons was the feeling that the army was overstretched even then. Everyone understands that on an operational tour you go away for six months and work 24 hours a day.

But in between, when you expect some time off, we would sometimes lose leave for trivial reasons. I was beginning to find that the army was offering opportunities to solve problems but only within certain parameters. I became more interested in how you might avoid the problems, for example war, in the first place.

Young officers are expected to live a certain lifestyle, therefore needing private incomes. You can be judged in these terms more than on professional merit. This elitism is particularly prevalent in the cavalry and the guards, who have close links with the royal family and the aristocracy. This is the competition between officers-I’m not even talking about the social divisions between enlisted soldiers and officers.

Do people who have been in the army feel the same as you?

A lot of people I know are army officers and are more conservative. They’re not so democratically inclined. They don’t have mainly moral opposition to the war. But the times are a-changing. People like them are now looking at what the establishment’s doing and thinking, ‘Hang on. This is going a bit far.’

It’s said that 558 British soldiers have died of Gulf War syndrome since 1991. It’s a postponed body bag. If 558 body bags had come home from the Gulf in 1991 people would be thinking about things a bit differently now.

But the delay and isolation of the deaths partly disguise the cost of that war to British families. If people want to support our troops they should bring them home. If people want to be patriotic, then that’s the patriotic line. My parents voted for Thatcher every time. They’ve never been on a demonstration in their life.

They’re both going to the anti-war demonstration in London on Saturday 15 February. We’re reaching through into some pretty conservative territory. There’s something funny happening. The two main political parties in parliament are identical.

Who represents the 80 percent of people who are opposed to war? The 15 February demonstration is more like a pro-democracy march than an anti-war one. These are very dark times, but there is hope.

James Thorne is now an active member of the Stop the War Coalition at Manchester University.

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