ON MONDAY 24 AUGUST, a lone soldier stood in full uniform outside Downing Street in London’s Whitehall government district, and blew a whistle every ten minutes. A placard next to his pack read: “I refuse to continue my military service until the deal with Saudi comes to an end”.
The ‘deal’ referred to would have been unknown to most walking by, as would the significance of the whistle, were it not explained on another placard announcing that a Yemeni child is killed every ten minutes by the atrocious conflict in their country. Britain is a major player in the war of aggression by Saudi Arabia, in which it intervened into a pre-existing civil conflict using British weapons and expertise.
BAE systems, the principal channel in the armament effort, has sold £15 billion worth of weapons and services to Saudi in the past five years, while the British armed forces have sent specialists to help deploy weapons systems, including some manufactured in Scotland.
It would be wrong to to separate responsibility here – government from private corporation, private corporation and government from military – as though we really did live in a society where the ‘separation of powers’, or of civic, military and commercial spheres, were much more than a piety. The modern British Army would be impossible without BAE systems., which in turn would be impossible without the army and without its state-facilitated commercial policy: dealing arms for a purpose with strategic allies.
Voices speaking out against this nexus of big corporate money, government foreign policy imperative and military violence are rare in official life, including in Scotland where arms firms like BAE in the Clyde estuary, Raytheon in Fife, and Leonardo based in Edinburgh create considerable revenue and carry substantial political heft.
Few concerns were raised publicly even when it emerged that Scottish Enterprise had provided grants to arms firms worth millions of pounds over the last ten years, and that state assisted corporations had developed and provided arms used in alleged war crimes. In 2018 the remains of a Paveway IV lazer-guided bomb, a top product of Raytheon in Glenrothes, were found in the wreckage of a school a school bus in northern Yemen, where 51 were killed.
It is therefore all the more important – and remarkable – that protest has emerged in the place where it is most difficult to announce it. Babati himself explained his stand; on an Instagram video message recorded shortly before his protests and arrest, he said: “As somebody that was born in Yemen, I could have easily fell victim to one of those airstrikes or died out of hunger.
“I joined the army in 2017 and took an oath to protect and serve this country, not to be part of a corrupt government that continues to arm and support terrorism.”
Though he has been sent back to his regiment, Babati is currently under investigation by the Royal Military Police – a force set up with the primary task of monitoring British military personnel for ill-discipline and potential subversion. Though they are also officially tasked with the investigations of war crimes committed by British army personnel, their record on this is by no means as stringent as when policing the drinking bouts and other forms of disorder that plague groups of young men sent in to traumatising conflict situations.
For quite obvious reasons, British soldiers are not allowed to protest in uniform, are not allowed to unionise and are even aggressively dissuaded from engaging in forms of public protest or political speech in plain-clothes. Aggressively, that is, if those protests or that speech might be discordant with the interests and actions of the British state, its military wing and the corporate arms sellers who are such a large part of its foreign policy.
In the world view of the British army, military invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, bombings in Libya and Syria, and deep co-operation with colonial-settler states like Israel and Gulf dictatorships like Saudi Arabia are apolitical. Politics is when you disagree, and disagreement is forbidden.
It is therefore little wonder that political expressions from the army are often found to be of the extreme reactionary kind – either group photos with professional racist mob-raiser ‘Tommy Robinson’, or target practice against the then opposition leader and anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn. These are, after all, the politics of the British state and military – the unfortunately-spoken-out-loud version of what it does in practice. We can be certain that effective protest against that politics will be attacked by army authorities with much greater efficiency.
When soldiers engage in acts of protest, no matter how small or symbolic, it is therefore crucial that they are supported in the country. Theirs is a powerful voice from deep within the amoral machine of British foreign policy.
Picture courtesy of: @VetsAboutFace