Marine A – Can there be justice and mercy?

Background

In September 2011, 42 Commando, Royal Marines was engaged in fierce fighting in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. The area around the Shazad Patrol base where the incident occurred was described at the time as “the most dangerous square mile in the world”. After an attack by insurgents was repelled with 30mm gunfire from an Apache helicopter, acting Colour Sergeant Al Blackman led a patrol to assess the effect of the helicopter attack. Recorded unwittingly on a helmet camera, Sgt Blackman shot dead a very badly injured insurgent they found at the scene. He was tried by court-martial (before anonymity was removed he was referred to as “Marine A”) and convicted of murder in November 2013, sentenced to life imprisonment to serve 10 years, reduced to 8 years on appeal.

Sgt Blackman had been Afghanistan since March, had led multiple patrols and been in several firefights. Quite possibly he had developed mild Combat Stress Disorder, stating that he was “feeling a little paranoid, [that] insurgents were gunning for me personally”. Due to the remote nature of the operating base he had little regular contact with his command chain, who could have assessed his mental state. During this tour, 42 Cdo lost 7 men killed and 40 injured. The Taliban insurgents had committed atrocities against the civilian population and, taking no prisoners, had mutilated and tortured the bodies of soldiers they had killed. The case did not come to court until 2 years after the incident, making it hard to verify the mental state of Sgt Blackman at the time. Unusually for a murder trial, no body was found or identified.

The man

Joining the Royal Marines straight from school, Alexander Blackman had an outstanding record of service to his country. He had served for 15 yrs including 6 operational tours of duty in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. Until the incident came to light, his service in Afghanistan was described as ‘outstanding’ and he was expected to be promoted to full Colour Sergeant.


What is most admirable about experienced soldiers such as Sgt Blackman is not just physical strength and courage, but the fact they have to live with the horrors of war they have witnessed yet are willing to repeatedly go back and put themselves at risk again.

Guilty

What is not really in question is that Sgt Blackman broke rules he was fully aware of, killing an enemy combatant he could perhaps have taken prisoner. Furthermore he attempted to hide his actions and involve subordinates. His defence that he believed the man to be already dead does not stand up in the face of what he was recorded saying by the helmet cam. He has brought shame on the Royal Marines who have always tried to be magnanimous in victory. According to the rules of war we have submitted to, he is guilty of murder and it was right that he answer for his actions. What is much more subjective is the measure of the punishment handed out. Going to prison for a killing that took place in the heat of battle is harsh, although the Court of Appeal considered the many mitigating circumstances, there is considerable public anger at the 8 year sentence.

Justice?

Although he may have been tried by his ‘peers’ in a court-martial it is very easy for those of us sitting in the comfort and safety of our homes to pass an absolute judgment on a man’s actions under the pressure of combat. This is nothing like a common civilian murder committed on the streets in the UK and in this case even using the term “murder” is fraught with problems.

Soldiers are human and the brutal behavior of the Taliban undoubtedly made the battle feel personal – “kill or be killed”. Walking out from the compound, Sgt Blackman was either going to find active combatants, whom he was required to kill or wounded enemies he was obliged under a code of conduct to help. In many previous conflicts soldiers could sometimes see their enemies as people just like them, sent to do a job, even comrades in arms who they were relieved to capture and send off to be prisoners. The recent counter-insurgency operations are different. Fighting stateless insurgents who do not recognize any international law, have never heard of the Geneva convention and live by a code of medieval brutality is inevitably going to impact the behaviour of those sent to fight them.

This complex case puts an uncomfortable spotlight on how we treat and judge our service personnel. If we send them off to fight on our behalf in circumstances that are often horrific and beyond the understanding of those who have not been there, we must not then judge them by application of our civilian norms.

Many seasoned and respected soldiers who understand the pressures of combat have commented that in similar circumstances they might well have done the same as Sgt Blackman.

It does not make it right, but it would be very naive to believe this has not happened before when British troops have killed wounded or captured enemy soldiers in the heat of battle or its immediate aftermath, the difference now being recording technology such as the helmet camera. This explains why Sgt Blackman is the only serviceman convicted of “murder” on active service since WWII.

There are plenty of civilians who have never risked life and limb to serve their country and society, have committed violent crimes far from the heat of battle, yet have received shorter sentences.

Few really believe there was a media or political conspiracy behind the conviction, but undoubtedly government was satisfied by the result, as from an international perspective they could be seen to be doing the right thing. Thanks to pressure from the Guardian newspaper, Sgt Blackman was named like a common murderer for the benefit of a hungry media and not given the protection of anonymity that service personnel should normally have

Divided opinions

The case is complex and has divided opinion. On one side is the simplistic view that “He shot a terrorist, give him a medal” or the other over-judgmental extreme that believe “murder is murder – he got what he deserved”. Both views are incoherent in a case that is morally ambigious.

The Taliban, like Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and ISIL are mutant strains of the same thing. They may believe in a ‘Holy War’ to justify their actions, but however they dress it up, objectively they are killing, torturing and raping their way through swathes of the Middle East and Africa. People who think nothing of sending suicide bombers to blow themselves indiscriminately slaughtering anyone. Fighters who hide behind women and children and who torture, mutilate and kill anyone they consider an enemy, soldier or otherwise. How are we to deal with such an enemy?

Although it goes against natural instinct, by showing grace and mercy to those prisoners unable to threaten us after battle, we rise above our enemies and do not descend into the darkness. The Blackman case is about upholding the law and setting a framework that our forces must work in. If we turn a blind eye to soldiers to executing prisoners as they see fit, we become hypocrites, ignoring the international laws we helped create and signed up to whenever it suits us. We may also endanger other British personnel who become victims of retribution.

While these principles are sound we must recognize the difficulty they cause the men on the ground. Often the rules of engagement and the way we treat prisoners has hampered and even endangered our forces, very difficult to accept and act on when, like Sgt Blackman, it is your life on the line.

In the Blackman case we upheld important legal principles but failed to deal fairly with a man who risked his life for his country and made a lapse of judgement under enormous pressure.

Patronising liberal commentators who have never been near a battlefield have sneered at growing public support for Sgt Blackman, claiming this is just the view of plebeians who inhabit social media and don’t understand the finer legal points of the case. Nevertheless, once the basic facts have been filtered out from the story, a majority of ordinary people quickly sympathise with Sgt Blackman, instinctively feeling he is the victim of an injustice.

Government obviously takes the position that the judiciary is independent and they cannot interfere. However ministers do have the power to intervene to reduce a prison sentences.

A respected independent view on this case can be seen in this documentary made by Chris Terril. A film-maker who has won the green beret, he was actually risking his life filming the Royal Marines in action at the time of the incident.

Conclusion

There is no doubt the man is guilty under law and was thus convicted. What is unfair is the lack of weight given to the many mitigating factors when handing out a custodial sentence. The disgrace already suffered, together with a dishonourable discharge from the Royal Marines, the corps which he loved is surely punishment enough. We call on parliament to intervene and demonstrate that mercy and justice can be done.

 

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