Something fairly remarkable happened the other day: a British soldier - Sergeant Alexander Blackman - was convicted of a murder committed on a battlefield whilst on service overseas in a foreign conflict zone. He was named, discharged with disgrace from the Royal Marines and sentenced to serve at least ten years in prison. This seems to be the first time that anyone can remember something like this happening to a British soldier in modern history, and it's truly remarkable. Just consider that for a moment: a soldier on a battlefield during a conflict convicted of murdering one of his enemies. What an extraordinary thing.
The murder of the injured Taliban insurgent took place in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in 2011. The insurgent had been wounded in a helicopter attack, and was shot in the chest by Sergeant Blackman after some debate with another pair of marines. There's audio footage of this event, and you can listen to it here. It's pretty shocking. The pistol shot to the helpless man's chest can be clearly heard – followed by Sergeant Blackman telling the man: "Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt," and instructing his fellow marines: "Obviously this doesn't go anywhere, fellas … I've just broken the Geneva convention."
He knew what he was doing was wrong, and he deserved to be found guilty, right?
An article published in the Daily Telegraph was quoted by the defence counsel during the trial. The article was written by the film-maker and anthropologist Chris Terrill, who spent time embedded with the marines in the area and is well worth a read. Here are some excerpts:
"The British outpost – a patrol base – was effectively behind enemy lines. Nicknamed “Rorke’s Drift”, it was manned, at any one time, by about 35 Marines pretty much cut off from the outside world. Their job was to keep the enemy busy so that bomb disposal and important development work could take place in a village barely a mile to the north".
"It was always hot, about 50 degrees, and the chances of ambush were always high – but not as high as the prospect of stepping on an IED, an improvised explosive device. The number-one killer of Nato troops in Helmand and this place was riddled with them. The lads dubbed it “IED Central”.
The fields we had to cross had probably been freshly mined overnight and the tree lines separating the fields would have been thick with explosives. Some IEDs were triggered by a hidden insurgent but the vast majority, concealed under a layer of earth or sand, needed only someone to step on a hair-trigger pressure plate. As indiscriminate as they were deadly, they could be detonated by the heavy combat boot of a Marine, the sandalled foot of a working farmer or the bare, scampering foot of an innocent child. These were the ultimate killing fields".
"These time-consuming and exhausting patrols were sent out every day, twice a day – and every time the Marines would edge forward in their long, snaking line, each man knowing that the next step could be his last. It was a deadly lottery and patrolling was called “Afghan Roulette”. If an IED did not kill, it would maim horribly – loss of limbs and genitalia have been the signature injuries of the Afghan conflict".
"While the physical risk was undoubtedly enormous, the psychological threat was just as fearsome. The Taliban have never been averse to hanging the body parts of dead soldiers in the branches of trees – to taunt, to provoke, to goad. Often it was legs and almost always they were booby-trapped. There was also the knowledge that capture was a guarantee of torture – probably skinning followed by beheading....It came as no surprise to me that the Marines were ever eager to track down, confront and neutralise this unforgiving enemy. I was not even a combatant, I shot with a camera not a gun, but I was soon consumed by that same sense of anger and loss – especially after I started to suffer personal grief for those men, killed or terribly injured, whom I had counted as friends."
Now, I don't think that any of this excuses what Blackman did that day, and I'm not trying to defend his actions, but I do think that understanding the environment he was in helps to explain his behaviour. Soldiers are put into impossible positions and asked to make impossible choices every single day. Are we really meant to believe that they live in a world of black and white, or right and wrong? That there aren't any shades of grey? They're only human beings. Captain America isn't real, you know.
In some ways I'm proud to live in a country where we will hold someone in this position to account over what they did, when it would probably have been all too easy to cover this up and to just make it go away. Facing into it was the harder path to take, and it's the path that we took (although who knows how many cases there are like this that never see the light of day?).
To be honest though, this whole affair highlights a bigger absurdity: the idea that there can somehow be rules for war; guidelines for acceptable behaviour on a battlefield. You take these young men, you train them how to be killers and you send them out to a warzone. You ask them to watch their friends and comrades being shot, blown apart and tortured, and you then ask them to somehow be able to control themselves when they are face to face with the enemy?
What exactly do you think war is?
Newflash! Horrible things happen in a war! It may be news to some people, but not everyone who serves in our armed forces is a hero, and even those who are can't possibly be heroes all of the time. No one can be. That's just not how being a human being works. It's not how war works, either. If you don't like what happens in a war, then don't fight wars. It's simple.
You can dress it up how you like, but war is about being prepared to kill as many people as it takes to get your own way. You can apply as many rules and codes of conduct to it as you like, but a monkey in silk is still a monkey. The scorpion stings the frog every time, so why are we still playing this game?
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