‘Marine A’ Was a War Criminal But Alexander Blackman Can Show His Contrition

Alexander Blackman, better known as Marine A, is a war criminal. In September 2011, while serving as a royal marine sergeant in Afghanistan, he killed a Taliban insurgent who was not a combatant, but an unarmed and wounded prisoner of war.

Shooting him in the head at point blank range, he immediately admitted to breaching the Geneva Conventions on the rules of engagement, and conspired with his two comrades to cover-up the crime.

Blackman’s supporters were jubilant when the Court of Appeal converted his murder conviction into one of manslaughter - a bizarre reaction given that Blackman’s conviction was not quashed, but merely downgraded. Blackman was a distinguished serviceman, but - as any common felon - he is now ineligible to serve in the army.

Blackman was not wrongly convicted, not eligible for formal apologies or compensation. The Court reaffirmed the verdict of the court martial - that Blackman knowingly committed an unlawful killing that undermined the morale and safety of his fellow soldiers.

It also found that Blackman was suffering from the combat stress disorder that commonly affects soldiers on the battlefield.  But diminished responsibility does not mean absence of responsibility.

Blackman’s supporters accuse the authorities of making him a “scapegoat” for the kind of strategic failures outlined in the utterly damning Chilcot Report. The disaster of Iraq and the quagmire of Afghanistan, putting poorly-equipped and irresponsibly deployed troops in harm’s way, have made the public weary of interventionism that has mostly wrought devastation.

But most of us would probably not consider ourselves absolute pacifists either. As George Orwell wrote as the Second World War raged: “Those who abjure violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.”

war is always an inhumane business no matter the “greater good” it’s being waged for

H.L. Mencken wrote that war is useful as for better or worse, it “admits the central fact of human nature.” At its best, war is a demonstration of bravery and solidarity motivated by a reasonable “just cause”. The anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s and 40s are the most obvious examples, while in more recent history the soft-handedness of UN forces supposed to obstruct genocides in Rwanda and Darfur had catastrophic consequences.

But as war is always an inhumane business no matter the “greater good” it’s being waged for, we impose certain parameters in an effort to lessen its brutality and punish atrocities, and should ideally adhere to the principle “last resort” and the strict sanctions of international law. But I say ideally as no Western leader seems to be equal before it.

Prosecutors have been accused of a “witch-hunt” against former soldiers with verifiable allegations of abuse and unlawful killings against them from Troubles-era Northern Ireland to Iraq and Afghanistan - which alongside hatemongering against judges as “enemies of the people” constitutes an attack on the democratic pillar of an independent judiciary.

If the families of servicemen killed in Iraq are able to privately prosecute Tony Blair and potentially other officials for the blunders and dishonesty outlined in Chilcot - following the refusal of public authorities to do so - then the law will take its course referring to a cold and clinical 2 million pages of evidence. Blackman sympathisers crying “witch-hunt” against other alleged war criminals would, surely, not object to accountability in this case.

Blackman’s appealing defence argued that society is under threat from “dark forces” like never before and would be at the “mercy of the new barbarians” without men like him.

This ideologically-charged, “clash of civilisations” rationale - far beyond the context of warfare - parallels the thinking of terrorists who depend on a dehumanising, “us versus them” logic to validate their crimes (which reflects on the nebulous idea of the War on Terror itself).

To Islamic extremists, flying passenger jets into skyscrapers is fair game if all the innocents inside them are inextricable with a collective evil. Suicide bombings slaughtering their “impure” fellow Muslims are just as permissible.

Whatever one thinks of Blackman, he is a more complex man than Marine A

Khalid Masood, the terrorist who perpetrated the attack on Westminster, was inspired by ISIS. For ploughing into pedestrians with an SUV and knifing a policeman to death, they labelled him a “solider” of their caliphate.

And yet, the NHS first responders at the scene did everything they could to keep Masood’s black heart beating. They didn’t play into his hands and let him shuffle off the moral coil into a nihilistic victory - they attempted to save his life so he could face justice.

“It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us”, said Blackman after shooting the insurgent to whom he denied first aid. But in that moment he only debased himself to the same level.

According to Blackman’s wife, he has always regretted his actions. Having served his time, he has the opportunity to express contrition for not living up for the standards of all those who served abiding to their code of conduct.

Whatever one thinks of Blackman, he is a more complex man than Marine A - a mere mascot for an arrogant chauvinism that serves to excuse abuse of power at all levels. With some honour restored, Blackman would have some moral high-ground from which to criticise those in power for their own derelictions of duty.

More about the author

About the author

Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.

Follow Jacob on Twitter.

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