Rebels: The Hidden History of Britain's Veterans
We cannot allow our own history to be decided for us
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
So said Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican leader of the struggle for black liberation around the world.
What was true then, and is still true, of oppressed black people is also true of those who have served at the spear-tip of imperialism and colonialism.
One of the lessons which our Remembrance weekend events insisted upon is that what we recall of our own history is crucial. We cannot allow it to be decided for us.
The official narrative which runs through the Royal British Legion-led event is one of war without politics, without context and without proper historical analysis. Remembrance has become a festival of obedience.
But there is another story. Put simply, British military history is about more than one thing. It as much a story of rebellion, mutiny and resistance as it is one of dutiful sailors, disciplined soldiers and obedient airmen fecklessly doing what they were told, whatever the cost.
What I tried to sketch in my talk on the final panel is that there is another history of veterans and soldiers.
Knowledge of this other hidden history is critical to understanding what we are, what our struggle means and its enormous potential to help push history onto a course away from war, bigotry and barbarism and towards a fairer order.
I hope this knowledge will allow us to position ourselves in the world and that it will strengthen us in the daily arguments we must have with other veterans, soldiers and civilians.
I spoke about four major periods of military unrest: the Leveller-soldiers of 1647, the Resistance and suppression of demobilised veterans after the Napoleonic wars, the mutinous stirrings during and after WW1 and the WW2 Cairo Parliaments.
Each movement was a unique period of large-scale resistance. There were and are many smaller rebellions and mutinies at different times in between these episodes and since.
What these eruptions generally share is that in each case real-world issues – pay arrears, poor treatment, unwillingness to deploy, racism and mismanagement – collided with big social movements with big ideas about how society is ordered and who, precisely, does the ordering.
Times like those are recognisably upon us again now. While we are none of the movements movements we walk in the same path.
It is an unfinished rebellion from below which is ours to complete if we so choose.
To that end, and after being asked by a number of members, I have am going to link or recommend some of the materials I drew on for my talk.
On the Agitators, Chapter 1 of Paul Foot’s The Vote is essential reading. I would also recommend Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down for chapters on both the Leveller and Digger movements. Not cited in my talk is John Rees’ very recently published The Leveller Revolution which shaping up brilliantly.
Examples of soldier and veteran rebellion and suppression after the Napoleonic Wars include the murder of veteran turned activist John Lees, the plot by the Cato Street Gang and the introduction of the Vagrancy Act 0f 1924.
Of WW1 perhaps the best starting point is the Etaples Mutiny – anniversary next year – and various articles on plans to crush and divide returning soldiers.
In reference to WW2, I focused on the Cairo Parliaments in which soldiers started to elect their own leaders while deployed in Egypt and vote on how they would order the world some of them that they had won.
Additionally, the vital subject of the US GI movement was raised by our American sisters and brother.
That monumental struggle by soldiers and veterans against the Vietnam War is a critical example of the same age-old fight by soldiers against their commanders and against war, racism and a horrific imperial foreign policy being reprised in the modern world.
There are no agitators, Levellers, Chartists, Etaples mutineers or Cairo parliamentarians left to tell their stories, but we are blessed to have ongoing connections with many of those who were there in the fight against the destruction of Vietnam.
I would point out in conclusion that David Cortright’s brilliant Soldiers in Revolt on the GI Resistance – which toppled the war and tested the US ruling class to the limit – is a book of frankly biblical importance for those with an interest in military rebellion
Source: Veterans for Peace