Let’s not get stuck on the rhetoric of “he killed a prisoner” as some sort of moral justification of his lengthy sentence, as if we in the UK punish all those who step over the line, or are totally innocent in all of our dealings within Afghanistan or anywhere across the Middle East. Let us also consider the mental well-being of Sgt Blackman at the time of the incident and ask why this was not sufficient for his defence to reduce his charge to manslaughter rather than murder.
Any ‘moral’ posturing the UK may have done in the past looks a little shallow now, given what we know about the reasons for UK involvement in Iraq, the total mess we left behind in Libya, our complete inability to do anything positive in Syria and our consistent ignoring of the barbarism of our ‘friend’ Saudi Arabia.
At the time of Sgt Blackman’s ‘crime’ and conviction, the UK was being bombarded with tall tales about our soldier’s treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many specific accusations had emerged over the conduct of the British Army in Iraq and an inquiry was well underway when Sgt Blackman shot and killed a mortally wounded Taliban fighter in Afghanistan in 2011.
The Al-Sweady inquiry into claims made against the British Army in Iraq found all of the very public allegations of murder, torture and mutilation to be totally baseless, nothing more than an attempt to smear our servicemen. The left-wing press and some less-than-patriotic politicians were only too happy to accept the allegations, without awaiting proper trial procedure, going quiet once the inquiry published. A group of 9 individual soldiers were criticised over mistreatment of prisoners, but the majority of claims (and all serious claims) were found to be baseless.
Unfortunately for Sgt Blackman, this inquiry did not conclude until late 2014, when he had already been convicted in what looks now to be nothing more than a show trial. Sgt Blackman was made a scapegoat and bore all of the blame for what many considered at the time to be credible accusations against the British Army emanating from the Iraq scandal. The operation in Helmand was a nightmare, badly organised and supported, but no account was taken of the additional pressure this added to already battle-weary soldiers.
Sgt Blackman – murder or manslaughter?
Yes, Sgt Blackman did pull a pistol and shoot dead a Taliban fighter at the conclusion of a fierce firefight in Helmand. The insurgent had already been mortally wounded by cannon fire from an attack helicopter as he attacked a Royal Marine base. He was already dying, but Sgt Blackman on a normal day would have assisted, not shot him.. There has to be some distinction between the case of a battle-weary, traumatised soldier snapping during combat and what we would come to accept as ‘murder’ in the UK.
What is in dispute now is whether this should have been tried as murder in the first place rather than a more obvious manslaughter case.
Let’s consider some factors which suggest manslaughter would have been a more correct charge in the first place, but also a temporary insanity plea more than credible in response.
- A Royal Marine with a 15 year service record is not someone who is prone to the behaviour displayed during the incident in Helmand. If he were, he would not still be on active service when the incident in 2011 took place. Sgt Blackman was described as a “superb soldier” with an “unblemished record”.
- Sgt Blackman himself said it was a split second mistake, brought on by the anger and stress of what he had experienced.
- Anyone who has experience of the nature of combat in a place such as Helmand can easily attest to the adrenaline-fuelled intensity of the firefight Sgt Blackman had been involved and how any individual combatant makes life or death decisions under such pressure which would run any mind close to the borders of insanity.
- He had been stationed in Helmand, under-equipped and under-resourced, for 5½ months. Having lost many friends to death or serious injury, he would already have been suffering combat stress disorder, as would any soldier in that situation.
- The trauma of constant engagements with an elusive enemy, an enemy who would mutilate (and maybe video) any British prisoners they happened upon, the loss of close comrades and the sheer intensity of trying to survive each day, would be tough on even the strongest of minds. Sgt Blackman was of strong mind, but he was a long-term veteran, maybe punch-drunk from too many bouts.
- The IED which wreaked havoc on his company, 4 days into their tour, was a factor. It would have left a profound and traumatic effect on all remaining members. This trauma would have intensified over the next 5½ months with each patrol and each engagement with a barbaric Taliban.
- Many soldiers have described feelings of abandonment by their superiors and government, adding to the trauma they were facing daily in Helmand. This would have an effect on the mental well-being of Sgt Blackman as he tried to hold his dwindling group together, motivating them to gear up for each death-defying patrol. Responsibility would weigh heavily on Sgt Blackman, intensifying his own personal trauma as he shouldered some from subordinates around him.
- This Taliban insurgent was 1 of 2 who attacked Sgt Blackman’s small outpost that day, fatally injured by the air support called in. He was found in the resulting search by Sgt Blackman and his team and Blackman snapped, shooting the injured fighter in a moment of madness, a moment where his mind had been unable to switch off from the extremes required during firefights in time to stop himself killing an injured enemy.
- A Royal Navy internal review of the case criticised the lack of officer supervision and suggested that Sgt Blackman’s whole team were suffering from fatigue and psychological strain, leading to moral regression.
“The face to face supervision by OC J Coy of Check Point (CP) OMAR, where Sgt Blackman’s Multiple was based, was insufficient to identify a number of warning signs that could have indicated that they were showing evidence of moral regression, psychological strain and fatigue.”
Release the scapegoat
Perhaps the UK government made a politically astute example of Sgt Blackman during his court martial. Perhaps the court itself was given only murder as an option by a lacklustre defence, manslaughter was not even considered. Perhaps those with responsibility simply wished to ignore their own complicity in a situation they asked our soldiers to go into without proper support.
Regardless, it is high time this veteran Royal Marine was released and offered some level of medical assistance with what must be shaky mental health.
Personally, I’d be asking for Sgt Blackman to be absolved of all conviction, his ‘temporary insanity due to combat stress’ accepted, his record expunged and pension-rights restored. This is not going to happen. It would be political suicide for those in charge to accept they were wrong and the fallout they’d receive from certain elements of the media forces them to continue with the façade of justice.
What would be acceptable, however, would be to reopen his case and consider a manslaughter conviction. This marine has spent too much time behind bars for a split second mistake during an exemplary 15 year military career. To class his crime as ‘murder’ is harsh in the extreme.