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2006-03-07

Former UK Soldier Urges Others to Refuse To Fight in Iraq

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Here in the U.S, at least 8,000 men and women have now deserted the military since the United States invaded Iraq three years ago. Meanwhile in Britain, soldiers are also refusing to fight in the war. Lance Corporal George Solomou speaks from London on why he resigned last year from the London regiment of the Territorial Army. [includes rush transcript]

USA Today is reporting at least 8,000 men and women have now deserted the U.S. military since the United States invaded Iraq three years ago. And many observers believe the actual number may be even higher. The GI Rights Hotline reports that it now receives up to 4,000 calls per month from soldiers seeking a way out of the military. Before the war, the hotline received about a thousand calls per year. Here in Britain, soldiers are also refusing to fight in the war.

Today we are joined here in London by Lance Corporal George Solomou. Last January he resigned from the London regiment of the Territorial Army. At the time he said, "I want to act as a beacon, a rallying point for other soldiers. We don’t have to go quietly. This war is wrong. I call upon other soldiers to conscientiously object to this war."

  • George Solomou, former soldier in the UK Territorial Army, resigned January 2005 in protest of the Iraq war.
  • Lindsey German, organizer with one of Britain’s leading anti-war groups, the Stop the War Coalition. She is co-editor of the book "Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement." The Stop the War Coalition is organizing a major demonstration in London on March 18 to mark the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq war.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we are joined in London by Lance Corporal George Solomou. Last January, he resigned from the London regiment of the Territorial Army, known as the T.A. At the time, he said, "I want to act as a beacon, a rallying point for other soldiers. We don’t have to go quietly. This war is wrong. I call upon other soldiers to conscientiously object to this war." Along with George Solomou, we are joined by Lindsey German, organizer with one of Britain’s premiere anti-war groups called Stop the War Coalition. She’s co-editor of the book, Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement. The Stop the War Coalition is organizing a major demonstration in London on March 18 to mark the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

George Solomou, let’s begin with you. When did you become a part of the British Army, the Territorial Army?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: I think about five years I spent with the Army, so it was around about 1999, around about that period.

AMY GOODMAN: You joined?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: I joined, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Why? Because I wanted to serve my country. I wanted to give my — the country that brought me up, that educated me, that nursed me through the health system, everything, something back. And I think that’s important, to give something back, not always take.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what changed?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: What changed? What fundamentally changed for me, the — remember this was the era in 1999 where the Labour Party was coming to power, as well, and there was a point where the Labour Party said we were going to have a new foreign policy, a more ethical foreign policy. And I thought that I could, as somebody who is politically minded, can join the Army and actually take part in the military under the auspices that there would not be unjust and immoral wars, that we would have an ethical foreign policy. Sadly, that didn’t come to fruition.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened? How did you make the decision to refuse to serve in Iraq?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Myself, like many of my comrades that were part of the regiment, many of us made different ways of conscientiously objecting. Some of us resigned. Quite a few of my friends resigned. Others just didn’t turn up to the Army base and then got pensioned off and told not to return, because their training was not up to date. I personally got to a point where I went to a Stop the War rally in Hackney there, where I live, and I just stood up at that meeting and said, "Look, I can’t stomach this war anymore. What can I do to stop it?" And from that moment on, colleagues in the anti-war movement contacted me, and we contacted lawyers and other people and found out that I could conscientiously object, because all this information is hidden from soldiers and it’s enshrined in the U.N. charters, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean "hidden"?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: It’s hidden. It’s basically hidden. When you get your call-up papers, you are given the classification of why you are being called up and the categories of how you can get out of your call-up, through being in full-time education, if you have a part of a business, or you are caring for an ill or relative, so forth. But the part of the papers where — that should say that you can conscientiously object is not there. And that is wrong, and it’s against the law, U.N. law, as well as European law.

AMY GOODMAN: How many British soldiers are serving in Iraq?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: At the present moment, it fluctuates. About 8,000.

AMY GOODMAN: And what have British soldiers said to you about what you are doing? And tell us what you were doing. You were a medic?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Yes. I was a medic. The Army’s very short of medics, so I was earmarked to go out to Iraq. Lucky enough, I had a great amount of support. Only from a few offices that I got any negative comments. But for the vast majority of the soldiers who I have served with, they supported me. And it’s just — it’s unbelievable that men can go to a war which they don’t believe in. But that has been part of history, and many of my comrades have gone out to Iraq, have returned and resigned since then, and not made any political comment about the war. Even if they tell me, when we sit down for a drink in a bar, that it was the biggest waste of their life and the war is totally bankrupt.

AMY GOODMAN: How wounded are these men who come home, both physically and psychologically?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: How wounded? I have got two friends that are now seeking psychiatric help: one friend who lost an eye, one friend who is crippled for life and was going to come out with me as a conscientious objector to the war, but the Ministry of Defense got to him and warned him that his pension rights and money that he received from the Army for his wounds would be curtailed. And so, he was unable to come out with me against the war.

AMY GOODMAN: What about you? Were you threatened?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: No. I was ignored, basically. You see, the week that I made public statement at the houses of Parliament and other places, that was a very bad week for the British Army. There was a lot of negative stories about British soldiers involved in torture, British soldiers who had died. And they were very worried. I think the M.o.D. was very worried that this would get a lot of press. It did get press, but their hope was that it would quietly go away. And lucky enough, it hasn’t quietly gone away. But the problem is, is getting the message out to the soldiers, which I am campaigning for. Only on the 13th of this month, I’m going to Strasbourg to appear in front of the M.E.P.s, and to put —

AMY GOODMAN: M.E.P.s?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Ministers of Parliament — of European Parliament, to discuss the fact that England, as well as other European countries, are in contribution, are not publicly letting British soldiers know the truth about the ability to conscientiously object against this war.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how does it work here? You applied for conscientious objector status?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Yes, you basically apply. You have to apply before you’re actually called up. You have to write a letter to your commanding officer, say that I’m not willing to take part in this war, give the grounds that you wish to object on — they may be moral, religious, ethical or political. From then, you will be given an interview, and that will be recorded. So, when you finally do get your call-up papers, then they’ll be able to take it to a tribunal, and the tribunal will be able to decide from there.

AMY GOODMAN: So what was the response to your request?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Zero. They wouldn’t even reply to my letters. And I did it very publicly. I wrote to them twice, registered letters, as well as writing in the Independent and the Guardian my comments that I was conscientiously objecting, and they would not reply to me.

AMY GOODMAN: Lindsey German of Stop the War Campaign, how significant is it to have soldiers like George Solomou joining your movement?

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, it’s very significant indeed, and we’re very, very grateful to all of them, because they’ve made a huge difference to our campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: How many of them are there?

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, we’re in touch with — we think we are in quite close touch with something like a third of the families who’ve lost sons or relatives in Iraq, which is just over 100 now. So, we’re in touch with something like 30. There are others who are beginning to come forward, who now have still people serving in Iraq who want to campaign against the war, hopefully before anything happens to their children. So it makes a big impact on it, and they obviously make a big impact on people in Britain, because for people to say we believe that this was a war that was brought under false pretenses, we believe our children joined the Army in order to fight in what they might regard as a war which was justified. The fact that most people don’t regard this war as justified in Britain, or indeed in many parts of the world, makes them even more obviously upset at their loss, but also concerned to try and campaign against it.

AMY GOODMAN: Paint a picture of your movement, of the Stop the War Campaign. How large is it? How much coverage does it get? Who is a part of it?

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, we started it after 9/11, so it’s been going nearly five years now. And we campaigned firstly against the war in Afghanistan, and then against, obviously, the war in Iraq. Now we’re campaigning again to stop troops going to Afghanistan and against a war in Iran. So, we campaign around all those issues. It’s a very big campaign. We have from the very beginning a number of components, including national trade unions, who make up a significant part of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Which trade unions?

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, we have most of them. We have the transport, in general, the general and municipal, George’s own UNISON union, which is the local government workers, the civil servants, the college lecturers, the journalists. We’ve got lots and lots of them who have always supported us, and we are very, very grateful to them. The rail workers, both the main rail workers unions. So, that’s important for us. We’ve always had Muslim community support, and that continues. Traditional peace activists through C.N.D. and through the —

AMY GOODMAN: Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

LINDSEY GERMAN: Yes. The people who have campaigned and still campaign against Trident, against bases, nuclear bases in this country. So, a very broad campaign and a campaign which just keeps going, really, because, of course, there is always a great deal to campaign against.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the terrorism laws that are coming down? Some have already passed. Some are being considered in this week. And we are going to talk more about that in this week, as we broadcast from London, with others. But are people afraid to come forward, particularly Muslims in Britain?

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, I think there’s a great deal of anxiety among Muslims, because —- particularly with some of the older people who fear very much that their children are going to be stopped and searched, as they are, and that they are going to be criminalized and discriminated against. But there’s also a degree of anger at the laws, both among non-Muslims, people who feel these are worse laws than we had even during the second World War, and also among the Muslims themselves. So, there have been big demonstrations recently about the question of cartoons, the Danish cartoons, demonstrations of Muslims, but they also raise questions -—

AMY GOODMAN: The cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

LINDSEY GERMAN: Yes, that’s right. But they also raised the other questions, like civil liberties, because people are very concerned about them.

AMY GOODMAN: How linked are you with the U.S. peace movement, and for other countries, for that matter?

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, March the 18th is going to be an international day of action. We’ve made a number of links with the U.S. peace movement, which we are very happy about. We feel not enough. We feel one of the things we failed to do in the last two or three years has been to make sufficient links, but we have made links with United for Peace and Justice, with ANSWER, with a number of individuals. We had Cindy Sheehan at a peace conference in December. So a whole number of people. Military Families Speak Out have been over here, as well. And we find that a very, very useful thing. Plus we do now have links from Venezuela. We’ve got demonstrations happening in Basra and Baghdad on March the 18th, which we are very proud of, right across to Japan —

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, protests in Basra?

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, there’s going to be a demonstration against oil privatization and against the troops being there, which the oil workers union is organizing.

AMY GOODMAN: The Iraqi oil workers union.

LINDSEY GERMAN: Yes, that’s right. And there will also be a demonstration in Baghdad, which I don’t know exactly what form that will take, because obviously it’s very, very difficult for people to demonstrate.

AMY GOODMAN: George Solomou, what about your linkages with U.S. soldiers?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Well, what we do try to communicate with each other through the American organizations, as well as via the internet. I mean, I’ve got personal contacts of people who do phone me up, and we just talk. But, obviously, all this is about galvanizing people and getting them to come together. And we are forging better and better links as time goes on. I mean, Cindy Sheehan was here in the peace conference only in the end of the last December.

AMY GOODMAN: She was just arrested yesterday outside the United Nations.

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Oh, was she?

AMY GOODMAN: In New York, yes. As she marched with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink and Iraqi women who had come from Iraq to bring a message. Not all of them could come. There was supposed to be a delegation of seven of them. Two of them were prevented from coming — two Iraqi women. Their families had been killed by the U.S. military, and when they applied for their visa, the State Department told Medea Benjamin that the reason they were denied was because they were afraid that they would not want to go back to Iraq, because they didn’t have families to go back to, and perhaps stay in the United States.

LINDSEY GERMAN: Well, that’s Catch-22 for you, isn’t it really?

AMY GOODMAN: But, George, on the issue of the military, there’s been a lot in the United States about soldiers involved with abuse in Iraq. British soldiers have been tried, a few of them. Can you talk about that?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Can I talk about that? Well, I think — for any soldier, and for those — when I talk about my friends that have already been out there — abuse is systematic. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, and it doesn’t have to be the glorified pictures of people being beaten. I mean, when, for example, I spoke to friends that were on search missions where they had to go into people’s homes, and they literally went into people’s homes and just rounded them up and put them on lories. They didn’t know what was going to happen to those people. They were given an order to go into people’s homes, smash the door down, and go and terrify people and pick them up and take them off.

And now, we even know from today, I mean, the last results — there is in the region of 14,000 people illegally detained in Iraq that haven’t been charged, some of them up to a year, some of them now coming close to two years. Now, that is a crime. That’s a crime against humanity. That’s in breach of the U.N. charters, as well. Now, those — that’s why I say when conscientious objection is more than just saying that the war is wrong; it’s about not taking part in it. And every soldier has a little part to play, but fundamentally, that little part leads up to a bigger part, which is the war crime which is taking place in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: George, what is your answer to soldiers who would say, "I don’t want to go to Iraq, but I don’t want to desert my buddies?"

GEORGE SOLOMOU: You have a right under the U.N. charter to conscientiously object to the war. I’m not sure exactly what the American law is, but I know the British law allows you to do that. And I’m sure if American law is in line with U.N. law, then they have as much right, and they should research it and get in contact with representatives of the legal team in the U.N. to find out if they can.

AMY GOODMAN: That feeling, though, of leaving the people you trained with to go to war without you?

GEORGE SOLOMOU: Personally, for me, I knew as a medic, I know, I could have went out to Iraq and saved lives. But I feel I saved more lives by campaigning against this war. I saved more British lives. I saved more American lives and more Iraqi lives by not taking part in this war.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, George Solomou, I want to thank you very much for joining us, a former soldier in the British Territorial Army, was in the Royal Army Medical Corps attached to the London-Irish Rifles, publicly resigned from the Army, January 2005, in protest of the Iraq war. And Lindsey German, thanks for joining us, a convener of the Stop the War Coalition here in London, where we are broadcasting from.

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