I am a former soldier. I completed one tour of duty in Afghanistan, refused on legal and moral grounds to serve a second tour, and spent five months in a military prison as a result. When the news about the attack in Woolwich broke, by pure coincidence Ross Caputi was crashing on my sofa. Ross is a soft-spoken ex-US marine turned film-maker who served in Iraq and witnessed the pillaging and irradiation of Falluja. He is also a native of Boston, the scene of a recent homegrown terror attack. Together, we watched the news, and right away we were certain that what we were seeing was informed by the misguided military adventures in which we had taken part.
So at the very outset, and before the rising tide of prejudice and pseudo-patriotism fully encloses us, let us be clear: while nothing can justify the savage killing in Woolwich yesterday of a man since confirmed to have been a serving British soldier, it should not be hard to explain why the murder happened.
These awful events cannot be explained in the almost Texan terms of Colonel Richard Kemp, who served as commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2001. He tweeted on last night that they were “not about Iraq or Afghanistan”, but were an attack on “our way of life”. Plenty of others are saying the same.
But let’s start by examining what emerged from the mouths of the assailants themselves. In an accent that was pure London, according to one of the courageous women who intervened at the scene, one alleged killer claimed he was “… fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan …”. It is unclear whether it was the same man, or his alleged co-assailant, who said “… bring our [Note: our] troops home so we can all live in peace”.
It should by now be self-evident that by attacking Muslims overseas, you will occasionally spawn twisted and, as we saw yesterday, even murderous hatred at home. We need to recognise that, given the continued role our government has chosen to play in the US imperial project in the Middle East, we are lucky that these attacks are so few and far between.
It is equally important to point out, however, that rejection of and opposition to the toxic wars that informed yesterday’s attacks is by no means a “Muslim” trait. Vast swaths of the British population also stand in opposition to these wars, including many veterans of the wars like myself and Ross, as well as serving soldiers I speak to who cannot be named here for fear of persecution.
Yet this anti-war view, so widely held and strongly felt, finds no expression in a parliament for whom the merest whiff of boot polish or military jargon causes a fit of “Tommy this, Tommy that …” jingoism. The fact is, there are two majority views in this country: one in the political body that says war, war and more war; and one in the population which says it’s had enough of giving up its sons and daughter abroad and now, again, at home.
For 12 years British Muslims have been set upon, pilloried and alienated by successive governments and by the media for things that they did not do. We must say clearly that the alleged actions of these two men are theirs alone, regardless of being informed by the wars, and we should not descend into yet another round of collective responsibility peddling.
Indeed, if there is collective responsibility for the killings, it belongs to the hawks whose policies have caused bloodbaths – directly, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, and indirectly in places as far apart as Woolwich and Boston, which in turn have created political space for the far right to peddle their hatred, as we saw in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich attack.
What we must do now is straightforward enough. Our own responsibilities are first of all to make sure innocents are not subject to blanket punishment for things that they did not do, and to force our government – safe in their houses – to put an end to Britain’s involvement in the vicious foreign occupations that have again created bloodshed in London.
About the author: Joe Glenton refused to serve a second tour in Afghanistan on legal and moral grounds, later spending five months in military prison. He now studies international relations. Joe blogs at joeglenton.wordpress.com and has written for Counterfire, the Daily Mirror, New Internationalist, Military History Monthly and News Unspun. His book Soldier Box is published by Verso.