This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Four decorated former soldiers—veterans of the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya—stand at the gates of the UK prime minister's office at Downing Street, bearing their medals aloft.
"If you look close enough," says Royal Air Force (RAF) veteran Daniel Lenham, holding his towards the scrum of press photographers, "you can see the reflections of dead Iraqis; you can see the embers of Libya; and you can see the faces of the men and women of the British Armed Forces who didn't return, and also of those who did so with lost limbs and shattered souls."
The ex-soldiers have come to express their disgust at Parliament's decision to extend its military campaign in the Middle East into Syria. They're members of an organization called Veterans for Peace—a campaign group that can fuck with the military ethos more effectively than anyone else because they know where the bodies are buried.
"By bombing in Syria, vulnerable sentient beings—men, women, and children—are being killed," says Gulf War veteran Kirk Sollitt. "We cannot sow bloodshed and reap peace."
One after the other the men throw their medals—"worthless trinkets"—to the wet cobblestones outside Downing Street, where they lie, their ribbons fluttering pathetically in the wind.
"It's a very difficult thing for a soldier to give up his medals," says former Special Air Service commando and Veterans for Peace coordinator Ben Griffin, who came to the ceremony on Tuesday with the medals of Dave Smith, a disabled veteran of Northern Ireland who was not physically able to attend. "We are doing this to send out a message to the public."
Throwing their hard won symbols of military honor to the floor is, says Griffin, a challenge to the government and employees of British arms companies.
"We've got no trust in the government to do the right thing over this," he says. "We don't expect them to stop the bombing. We fully expect them to start bombing other countries in the future."
"Fighting in Syria has now become a matter of conscience," says Griffin. "If you work in an arms factory, we think you should walk out. Stop making the bombs that are being launched on these countries. If you're filling up a fighter plane with fuel, stop it. If you are flying missions over Syria to bomb that country, don't release the bombs. This is a matter of personal conscience. Everyone should search themselves: do I believe in this? Is this the right thing to do? And if you believe it's wrong, you have a duty not to do it."
For Daniel Lenham, who served in the RAF from 2002-2014 as an aircraft weapons technician, the reality of what he was doing in the military took years to sink in.
"Basra shook me up," he says. "The fact that you're on a base, the majority of personnel remaining within the wire, creates a 'shooting fish in a barrel' syndrome, where a lot of the attacks would be mortars and rockets coming in. You would find yourself on the floor a number of times every day due to incoming."
The defining moment, however, came while he was deployed in Italy, loading bombs onto planes destined for Libya.
"Although I wasn't in a hostile country and I wasn't under any direct threat of fire," he says, "I was loading high explosive weaponry to aircraft, knowing that it was then going to be taken to another country and dropped on people—irrespective of whether they were terrorists, insurgents, or just the local population."
Seeing the "embers of Libya" reflected in his medals was, says Lenham, not necessarily an exaggeration.
"When we were in Italy the aircrew would return with footage taken from the under aircraft camera," he says. "It was macabre. There wasn't any cracking open of beers—but there was certainly a twisted satisfaction associated with it, as you can imagine. For me it reinforced the devastation that was being incurred just by you carrying out your job. You would see footage of the weapons being released from the aircraft and hitting the supposed targets."
An hour before their protest, the former soldiers had assembled beneath Nelson's Column, bearing the dead Admiral's most famous command booming down: "England Expects Every Man Will Do His Duty." The question today is—duty to whom?
"People are beginning to see through the propaganda, the illusion," says WWII veteran Jim Radford, who came along to show support. "Generations of young men have been brought up to believe that if society sends them to war there must be a good reason for it. They wouldn't send us to war if it wasn't necessary would they? They wouldn't ask us to kill people if there wasn't a real threat? We're obviously doing the right thing, difficult though it may be. People are questioning that. And they're right to question that."
"We want every soldier to question," says Radford. "People seem to forget history. The Nuremburg Trials, in 1946, established in international law, very firmly, that soldiers not only have the right—they have the duty to question orders when they're told to do something that they think might be against international law or against common humanity."
Veterans for Peace's position isn't controversial: "War is not the solution to the problems of the 21st century" is their thought for the day. But their own solution—a call for mass disobedience, mutiny even—is. Once they might have been executed for it. Today, under the Incitement to Disaffection Act, they could still technically go to prison for it. But, as the military lurches from one recruitment crisis to the next, the last thing it wants it to turn a group of pacifists into martyrs. Indeed, as recent figures suggest that less than half the British population support the bombing of Syria, there's every possibility that those who refuse to bear arms are on the winning side.
"We have seen first hand the destruction and the devastation caused by these bombings, these attacks," says former SAS trooper Ben Griffin. "By bombing these countries we are killing families, we are destroying homes, we are radicalizing people, and we're making the refugee crisis even worse. It is clearly not the solution to the world's problems."
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