The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are pointless, say army veterans joining the Occupy London protest. „It felt we were basically pawns doing the work of corporations and big business.“
By Mark Townsend
12 November 2011
Ex-soldier Ben Griffin at the St Paul’s Cathedral Occupy London protest
When members of the Occupy camp join Remembrance Day services at St Paul’s Cathedral, their ranks will be swelled by a group of military veterans with their own list of grievances against the establishment.
At least 15 former service personnel have now pitched up outside the cathedral and at nearby Finsbury Square, many in protest over treatment of veterans or the conflicts that have burdened them with mental or physical scars.
Their presence is an indication of the evolving support base of the anti-capitalist Occupy movement, which has been endorsed by a senior figure at St Paul’s, just weeks after the protests led to the resignation of three of the cathedral’s leading clerics.
Among the veterans is Michael Brandon – known to friends as Ace – who left the army 20 years ago. He has spent the last two decades mostly homeless, during which he slipped into alcoholism and began self-harming – his wrists are criss-crossed with scar tissue where he has slashed himself with razor blades.
At the Occupy Finsbury Square site, Brandon has set up Ace Bikes, a bicycle repair business, to raise funds for the movement. The 46-year-old, like other veterans at the camp, says that he is protesting for better opportunities for their children – in Brandon’s case, for his five-year-old son, Daniel James. Brandon says an incident in Northern Ireland triggered his psychiatric problems.
„We were on patrol when a bullet whizzed by, then one of my best mates got hit in the head, it blew his brains completely out, all over me. My tunic was red. I got shot in the arm as I tried to help and pull him away. The incident changed me, I’ve never been the same since. I’ve never had any government help.“
Other veterans at the Occupy sites also claim to suffer from problems linked to their service.
Matthew Horne, 23, served in Iraq for eight months until June 2008 with the Scots Guards and his experiences left him pondering the „futility“ of war. He left the services 18 months ago, and says the Occupy movement has provided a platform to campaign for veterans who fought for a democracy but were denied support.
„I’m disgusted with the way this government deals with veterans who have left the services,“ he said. Horne added that his service in southern Iraq made him wonder what they were actually fighting for.
„We were target practice to keep the so-called militants busy – we just kept getting bombarded while private security went around the city doing whatever. There is a confusion regarding what war is about these days: there was more private security in Basra then soldiers. It felt we were basically pawns doing the work of corporations and big business.“
Another veteran, Ben Griffin, 34, from Tottenham, London, said he served with 2 Para and special forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the experience of fighting wars with uncertain outcomes and reasons eventually made it impossible for him to continue serving.
Griffin, who battled for with alcohol after leaving the forces in 2005, added: „There is a big drinking culture in the army. It’s obvious that Iraq and Afghanistan are pointless: we haven’t achieved anything through constant militarism.“
He also took umbrage with the Ministry of Defence’s notion of heroism, dismissing it a „jingoistic way of drumming up support“.
The canon in residence of St Paul’s said that he shared the concerns of the Occupy movement, moments after he blessed the new figurehead of London’s financial district.
In a statement that underlined the increasingly collaborative relationship between the church and Occupy supporters, the Rt Rev Michael Colclough addressed protesters at St Paul’s and urged that more must be done to share global resources.
Minutes earlier, Colclough had anointed the new head of the City of London Corporation and lord mayor, David Wootton, at the cathedral during the finale of the Lord Mayor’s Show. The corporation, which has tried to evict the Occupy camp from the cathedral surrounds, remains a source of anger for protesters, who claim it is merely a lobbying arm for the City.
In a break with tradition lasting more than 800 years, the new mayor was blessed at the cathedral’s south entrance instead of the steps because of the protesters‘ tents.
Colclough told protesters: „People have camped around the cathedral over the past three weeks expressing concern for the poor and for a better distribution of the treasures in the world. That concern is something that we share within the church.“
He then prayed for a „better sharing of the rich resources that we have in the world“. The move was interpreted by Occupy protesters as a blessing for them following the wrangling with St Paul’s that has seen the canon, chaplain and dean all resign amid confusion and indecision over whether the church should welcome them or move them on.