Outside the Chilcot announcement on Wednesday an anti-war rally gathered. In its ranks were a number of military veterans. They are, unsurprisingly, an increasing presence in the anti-war movement: organised, dedicated, passionately angry.
I asked them their opinions on the Iraq war inquiry’s findings even as Sir John Chilcot delivered the verdict. They had many different ideas on how to deal with Tony Blair, the establishment, the special relationship with America – the whole legal, moral and political abomination that is the Iraq war and its aftermath.
Most of them, when asked, did share one position very firmly. It has been expressed to me again and again in a single word: betrayal. In Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, we were betrayed. In my experience this feeling is also present among soldiers and veterans who are not overtly political.
That is what you feel when you are a soldier in a war you do not believe in or have come to see as a sham.
It is right that Iraq will dominate the headlines for some time to come, but it is not the only war we have fought or are fighting. There are others: Libya, Syria, Yemen. Mine was Afghanistan.
I was a true believer. I wanted to be a soldier from a young age because a life in the forces offered everything a working-class kid could want. A route out of poverty, a sense of meaning, a tribe. The services appeared to have all the trappings of a better life in pursuit of a nobler world – for me and for others.
I loved the army. I loved my regiment, my squadron and my troop. I loved the life the military offered me and wanted to stay for ever. But that desire, indoctrinated into me, could not square with the reality of the wars Britain was fighting. It is like being all dressed up with nowhere to go. We were ready to die but had nothing worth dying for. Though die we did, and in the hundreds.
The uncontested account of my experience has been recorded elsewhere. But it is merely one single example of a process many, many soldiers and veterans have gone through since 9/11.
My war gets a better press than Iraq, for no good reason that I can see. It cost the lives of more than twice as many UK soldiers as Iraq and was enormously damaging both to my own country and the one we invaded and occupied.
I see now more clearly than ever that my comrades and I were – to a greater or lesser extent depending on our jobs – hired muscle for great power. As a sagacious Vietnam veteran once told me of his time in south-east Asia: “I realised out there that I was nothing more than a redcoat” (a reference to how Americans viewed the occupying British troops during their war of independence).
Many of my comrades who went to Iraq had similarly jarring experiences, which were all the more horrific for them, as true believers themselves. This tribe we had enlisted in was not, it turned out, a force for good or liberation or anything of that kind.
Others do not come to that realisation in an overt way. Instead they internalise their war. They try, and mostly fail, to shut the door on it.
Some contend with the reality of having been a soldier in a wasteful, unnecessary war. They become embittered and twisted because they are determined to cling to the idea their war was worth it – if they lost friends or were wounded they cling even harder.
A historian of war once theorised that in those cases, where the determination to maintain that your war was right and justified even in the face of the facts, you become a kind of expression of imperialism – as warped and contradictory as, for example, the Iraq war.
If you are serving at the time you come to the realisation that your apparently heroic role in the world is a lie, so you face a choice. You can fight on knowing that your war isn’t worth it, or you can resist. If you resist you may will face the full might of the military crashing down on you.
If you don’t resist you will regret it for ever; if you do you may – though it is not a given at all – face censure from colleagues, and you will certainly attract the ire of your superiors, who will see your objections as a challenge to their authority. This is part of the legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, which, owing to the prevailing hero culture of the military, risks being missed.
An alienated soldiery is a dangerous thing in these unsettled times. But, as angry veterans are drawn toward the radical end of politics, it remains to be seen whom it is dangerous for. My hope is that their discontent is directed at the status quo that sent us to die in the deserts.
Joe Glenton served with the British Army in Afghanistan, he is a member of VFP London.