"I’ve Been Put in Prison for Opposing the War in Afghanistan"
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Oleg Zabielin
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The following is an excerpt from Soldier Box: Why I Won't Return to the War on Terror. Reprinted with permission of Verso Press, Brooklyn, NY.
It’s December. I’ve been put in prison for opposing the war in Afghanistan. Lots of other people disagree with it, lots of people think it is variously a stupid or illegal or unjustified or doomed war. The problem is that I am not supposed to say these things because I am a soldier; and yet I keep saying them.
Remand is when you are held in prison awaiting trial. Sometimes it is for those considered a flight risk and at other times it is for those not yet tried and convicted but considered too dangerous to be out in the world – I belong to the latter category. What I have said damages the ‘war effort’ and I have said it with that intention. Remand is purgatory. They tell us it’s not a prison, but we can’t go out. We ’re held in a centre for corrections. I find irony in that idea and in the idea that the individuals who’ve sent me here actually believe it is me who needs adjustment. The Military Correctional Training Centre (MCTC) claims to improve soldiers or discharge them as good citizens. To me it’s a funny idea – funny ha-ha, and funny strange.
I share my room in the remand wing with three others. It is here that we play cards at a table in the centre of the room. The others are regularly distracted by reality television, which they love and I hate equally. Summers comes from a Scottish regiment. I knew him briefly at the Defence School of Transport when he had been a trainee vehicle mechanic. He later switched trades to the infantry and now he has an Afghan medal, three counts of AWOL (five, eight and 133 days) and post-traumatic stress disorder. In line with unofficial tri-service policy, it would not be diagnosed, treated or taken into account for his court martial, despite his history and symptoms. After returning from a harrowing six months in Helmand he drowned himself in drink and drugs. His teenage girlfriend and his parents had posted him as a missing person when he disappeared for several days, sleeping off some chemical stupor. His unit posted him AWOL. Returning to duty, he claims, his sergeant major told him not to go sick with his condition because mental illness ruins careers. Tommy is an Ulsterman. He has an English father and an Ulster-born mother and claims he is a militant. He talks passionately about flute bands – which he pronounces flute ‘bohnds’ – and paramilitaries like Johnny Adair and ‘Top Gun’ McKeag. He is heavily tattooed and has a star inked underneath one eye that signifies an illicit deed carried out for the paramilitaries. He is in the logistics corps, like me. Tommy has attracted charges for ABH, AWOL, Drunkenness and Stealing a German Army General’s Bicycle While Drunk. In between playing hands of Shithead, Tommy draws vibrant loyalist images on the back of a notepad: A5 sectarian murals, like the sides of tiny Irish houses. He flips it over occasionally to tally scores.
Trevor is the final player. He is small, muscular and loud. He argues with the screws at every opportunity and is the serial door-kicker during lockdown. He is a Kingsman (a private in the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment), and is in for AWOL and GBH, which he hopes will be dropped to Affray. He and Summers have shaved their heads completely, and for this crime they have been given extra duties, mopping and buffering the floors with an ancient, unwieldy buffing machine. Regulations say that a grade 2 is the shortest cut allowed without a medical chit.
Summers was a veteran of Afghanistan, Tommy has been here twice and Trevor has done Iraq. Two of them have young children, but these men drift from mature and robust to infantile and mischievous, always irreverent. They talk about shots fired in anger, IEDs, RPGs, ambushes, natives and mortars that missed them and sometimes hit someone else. Near misses and drunken brawling are favourite topics. They laugh often.