In November 2013, a Royal Marine Commando known only as ‘Marine A’ was convicted of murder. He had faced a military court martial, accused of murdering an injured Taliban insurgent whilst serving in Afghanistan in September 2011. He was found guilty, dismissed with disgrace from the Royal Marine Corps and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The marine in question was then named as Sgt Alexander Blackman, a 39 old year old married man who had been a Royal Marine Commando for fifteen years. He was a five tour veteran, very well liked and extremely well respected by his colleagues. He had an exemplary military record, had been commended for his achievements in training younger Royal Marines and his commitment to the service and, prior to his murder charge, was being considered for promotion to Colour Sergeant. At his trial his defence barrister described Blackman as “A brave and modest man who lost his head” and said that he bitterly regretted his actions.
There is no doubt that Blackman should not have done what he did. His actions were immoral and illegal. Military troops must treat their prisoners with dignity and respect, ensuring their safety and treating their injuries. Those are the rules set out by international law, the Geneva Convention and the British Military and all service personnel must abide by them. And rightly so. But is Alexander Blackman truly guilty of cold-blooded murder? And should he really be serving a life sentence? Many strongly disagree and have campaigned for his release.
Following Blackman’s conviction, I spoke to a friend of mine, a former Royal Marine who, like Blackman, had been a sergeant and served in Afghanistan. He was deeply saddened and troubled by the case, describing Blackman as “A disgrace to the Globe & Laurel” and calling his actions “Sickening”. Royal Marines, he said, are expected to demonstrate self-control, discipline and courage, to be ferocious in battle but magnanimous in victory. “To shoot dead an unarmed and wounded detainee is an act of cowardice; to show compassion to an injured prisoner, despite the fact he is your enemy, is what a brave man does. Blackman let us all down”.
Nevertheless, my friend did concede to having pity for Blackman, being all too aware of the reality of combat and the brutality of war. Blackman’s crime, however inexcusable, has to be considered alongside the situation and experiences which led him to it. We cannot possibly understand what he had been through – horrors no civilian can begin to imagine – and we should not try to rationalise his actions from the position of our safe, cosy and civilised environment. Before we judge Sgt Blackman too harshly, perhaps there are factors on which we must reflect.
At the time of the incident Blackman and his men were at a patrol base in Toki, a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s notorious Helmand. Toki is a Taliban stronghold; it is a virtual death-trap for British troops and has been described as the most dangerous square mile in the world. It is crawling with Taliban insurgents and the ground is thick with booby traps and mines; every step a soldier takes across Toki’s open fields could mean death or severe injury from an IED or an ambush from the ever-present and ever-watchful enemy.
The Royal Marines of 42 Commando had been sent to Toki primarily to bring stability to Helmand. They were tasked with protecting the local villagers and farmers who, for many years, had been terrorised and intimidated by the Taliban. The troops were there to lure out the Taliban by setting up a post to invite an attack. They were, quite literally, bait. To exacerbate this terrifying and dangerous position, according to the rules of engagement, troops are not permitted to engage in combat with enemy fighters until they have positively identified a direct and imminent threat.
It must be remembered that the Taliban are not a disciplined fighting force who conduct themselves with any integrity; they are a terrible and horrifying enemy, capable of unbelievable atrocities and brutality. The Taliban use children as expendable instruments of combat, they hide from their enemy in mosques filled with innocent civilians and they brutalise their own people. They are not bound by the same rules and laws as British troops; they are free to treat their prisoners with impunity and behave as sadistically as they wish.
When the Taliban capture enemy troops they subject them to a barbarism which shocks and sickens even the most battle-hardened soldier. Prisoners of the Taliban have been tortured, publically executed, skinned alive, mutilated, dismembered and crucified in trees with their own testicles in their mouths. The limbs, intestines and genitals of those captured have been left hanging in trees for their comrades to find. Anyone who has fought them will tell you that you’d put a bullet in your own head before you’d let the Taliban take you alive.
Furthermore, Taliban fighters do not surrender easily but go down fighting. If injured, they will lie on top of or holding a grenade, waiting to be approached, so that they can take their enemy with them to oblivion. To take a Taliban fighter prisoner is rather like having hold of a tiger by the tail – unpredictable and very dangerous.
In September 2011 Alexander Blackman, already having endured heavy fighting after five gruelling tours abroad, was five months in to a six month tour in Afghanistan. He was in command, responsible for leading a group of young Marines in an incredibly dangerous area, their job to lure out the Taliban and engage them in battle. The men of 42 Commando came under regular attack and had already suffered losses and serious injury amongst their close comrades. They lived every minute of every day with death at their shoulder.
Following a fierce fire fight, Sgt Blackman’s patrol found a Taliban insurgent lying in a field. He had been hit by cannon fire from an Apache helicopter gunship and was seriously injured. A search revealed that he had a grenade and a firearm concealed in his clothing and these were removed. Blackman and his men dragged the wounded insurgent across the fields to their base camp.
What happened next was all captured by the helmet camera worn by one of Blackman’s men. Of course, the actual footage is not in the public domain but what was said has been broadcast and appeared in print and Blackman’s words in particular have become a matter of record. Initially, it seems there was at least a cursory attempt made to patch up the insurgent’s wounds with field dressing. Sgt Blackman then discussed with his men the necessity of having to call a medical evacuation helicopter for their prisoner. They were clearly loathed to do so, despite the fact that the man’s injuries were severe.
However, it must be remembered that the Taliban’s priority is to kill and maim British troops as much possible using whatever means necessary. Being able to shoot down a helicopter would be considered a prize. Whilst the final decision to despatch the medi-evac helicopter might not have been Blackman’s, he must have known that to call out the chopper would have made it a target and placed its personnel in extreme danger.
The helmet footage then shows one of Blackman’s men using the radio. The possibility of calling a helicopter is mentioned but there is also a suggestion made that the insurgent might already have died from his injuries. It was at this point that Sgt Blackman shot the man in the chest at close range with his pistol.
What he said, “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c**t, it’s nothing you wouldn’t you do to us”, is extremely shocking; it is cold, callous and laden with bravado. It is hard not be appalled by these words. As a coping mechanism for the horrors and stresses they must endure, it is very common for combat soldiers to use bombast and the blackest of humour to mask their fear and torment. Perhaps that is what Blackman was doing when he quoted Shakespeare, uttered expletives and said those things we struggle to understand.
What Blackman said next, “Obviously, this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas, I just broke the Geneva Convention”, is most damning. His words suggest an acknowledgement of his crime. He also seems to be asking the men of his command, men who looked up to him and to whom he was expected to set an example, to conceal the shooting in an act of collusion.
At his trial, Sgt Blackman claimed that he believed the insurgent was already dead when he shot him and that he discharged his weapon out of sheer frustration and stress. It was argued that his comments about breaking the Geneva Convention referred to the rules preventing the desecration of prisoners’ remains; they were not an admission of murder. But these claims were rejected. Blackman was found guilty of murder.
In passing sentence, the board was asked to consider various mitigating factors; Blackman’s previous good character, provocation from the enemy during the tour, combat stress, excessive losses amongst his own company, the fact that Blackman had served on six gruelling operational tours, fatigue and extreme grief following the death of his father prior to his deployment. Blackman’s defence also submitted a psychiatric report which detailed the grief, frustration and stress from which he was suffering at the time of the incident.
The board sentenced Blackman to life imprisonment with a minimum ten year prison term before he is eligible for parole. He is currently serving his sentence in a civilian prison. At the time of writing this article, Sgt Blackman and his family are awaiting the outcome of his appeal to the Court Martial Appeal Court.
At the trial Judge Advocate General Jeff Blackett decried Blackman’s actions and said that he had to be dealt with severely and transparently in order to demonstrate to the international community that battlefield crimes committed by British troops will not be tolerated. (Justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.) “If the British Armed Forces are not assiduous in complying with laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law they would become no better than the insurgents and terrorists they are fighting”, Judge Blackett said.
Judge Blackett accused Sgt Blackman of betraying all the British service personnel who have served in Afghanistan, tarnishing their reputation and undermining all the good they have done. He also commented that Sgt Blackman’s actions had endangered the lives of other British troops and could well provoke the enemy to act more brutally towards them in retribution or reprisal. Finally, Judge Blackett said that Blackman’s actions had provided ammunition to terrorists, whose propaganda portrays the British presence in Afghanistan as a war on the Muslim faith. He added that this ammunition will no doubt now be used in the Taliban programme of radicalisation.
Had Sgt Blackman stopped to think for just a few seconds before events took their sudden and shocking course that day, he might have realised the devastating and far-reaching consequences of his actions, not just for himself and the wounded man on the ground, but for the Royal Marine Corps and the British Military generally. And he may never have discharged his pistol into the chest of that unknown injured Taliban insurgent.
Sadly, he chose to shoot and, albeit entirely out of character and with a myriad of mitigating circumstances, he took another human life unlawfully. Now he is being punished for that crime. But I do not think he is a monster or a cold blooded killer, rather a decent, hard-working soldier who, after months of mental and physical torment, enduring the most extreme stress, grief and trauma, had one cruel and crazy moment of madness. A momentary loss of control for which he’ll be paying for the rest of his life.