Notes From the Margins…

Sergeant Blackman’s Heart of Darkness

  • December 08, 2013
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Human kind/ cannot bear very much reality, observed TS Eliot, and societies that send young men to kill and die on their behalf are particularly unwilling to bear the often brutish reality of the wars they fight.

One way in which British society conceals or distances itself from its wars is to emphasize the dying rather than the killing part, as it does every year at Remembrance Sunday or whenever a soldier comes back dead from Afghanistan.

We hear from the press and politicians that soldiers die for their country and sacrifice themselves for us, in order   to ‘keep us safe’.     We learn that they are our ‘finest men and women’ and that we must therefore always ‘support’ them, by not questioning the wars they fight or the ways in which they fight them.

From time to time,   unequivocal and undeniable evidence reaches us that war is about killing as well as dying, and that our soldiers are not necessarily the most exemplary specimens of humanity after all.

One of these episodes occurred when audio camera footage was released last month describing how four Marines in Helmand province executed a wounded Taliban insurgent in 2011,  who had been shot by a helicopter in a firefight shortly beforehand.

The images are not shown, and not all of the audio has been released, according to ITV News, because it was apparently too ‘inflammatory’, but the fragments that were presented to the public are bad enough.

In it, the four Marines can be heard jokily agreeing  to kill their prisoner, chuckling about it as they deliberate whether to shoot him in the head or the chest,   waiting till the helicopter is out of sight, and then contemptuously dispatching him with a quote from Shakespeare.

We now know that the Marine who actually pulled the trigger and made that literary allusion was Sergeant Alexander Blackman, who has now become the first British soldier to be convicted of murder and given a life sentence since World War II.   On the surface there is nothing in the video footage to contradict   Judge Advocate General Jeff Blackett’s description of the incident as  a ‘brutal and savage’ crime that has ‘tarnished the reputation’ of the British Armed Forces.

Blackman has defended his ‘moment of madness’ on various grounds.   He says that he didn’t know the Taliban was dead – something that the video footage clearly refutes.   He says that the Taliban had put the body parts of British soldiers on trees, even though he later admitted that he hadn’t seen this.   He also said that he was suffering from   combat stress, exacerbated by the death of his father.

Some of this may be true.   Whatever you think of the validity of the Afghan war – and personally I don’t think it has any – the soldiers fighting it are subject to all kinds of stresses that most of us can barely imagine.     Colonial-style wars and occupations, from Algeria and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan are invariably brutal, vicious and brutalizing, with an ability to bring out the worst instincts in even the most disciplined armies.

Nevertheless that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – change the fact that when soldiers commit crimes they should pay for the price for them.   The Daily Mail has described Blackman as a ‘casualty of war’, but the casualty was the man he shot.     And if the video hadn’t accidentally been discovered two years later, Blackman wouldn’t have suffered any consequences at all.

What the video footage reveals, like the Wikileaks ‘collateral murder’ video of US helicopter pilots gleefully shooting down unarmed civilians who they believed were armed insurgents, are men who have been transformed – even if only temporarily – into brutes and thugs.

Yet even before the trial, Blackman had become the subject of a campaign that included the Daily Mail, by former army officers, a 30,000-strong Facebook group and various petitions that have garnered more than 20,000 signatories, who have campaigned for leniency or even to have him released.

One petition claims that ‘Marine A’ – as Blackman was known before his conviction ‘ – had ‘defended his country from a terrorist.’

Given that the man he shot was already captured, defence isn’t really an issue here.     Another petitioner insists

‘There is no place for civilized rules of law in a war zone, he killed the enemy, this is what he was trained to do….All war is murder, so do not blame those that we send to do the darkest deeds, blame the Politicians that send them to war.’

Actually there is a place for ‘civilized rules in a war zone’; that’s what the Hague and Geneva Conventions were created for.     And all these conventions are unanimous that ‘the enemy’ should not be killed when he has already been captured.   Such laws don’t change even if ‘the enemy’ doesn’t observe them, and as the trial judge observed, by not observing them, you actually provide your enemies with a justification for breaking them.

Yet another petition demands ‘ that the Rules of Engagement be updated so as to give a better chance of survival to the serving British Soldier.’

Once again, what Blackman did had nothing to do with ‘survival’.   He chose to shoot someone he didn’t need to kill, and the idea that the ROE should be ‘updated’ to make such things possible is essentially a licence for atrocity.

An even wackier defence of his actions comes from Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, who blames the absence of ‘patriotism, chivalry, honour, discipline and self-sacrifice’ from British society.

In Kemp’s estimation:

Soldiers today rarely see the inside of a church and are brought up on movies dripping in gratuitous, unrestrained blood and gore.   It is the influence of this less moral culture condoned by successive governments pursuing an agenda of secularism and multi-cultural moral relativism,  which now determines how a soldier acts under extreme pressure.

So it’s all the multiculturalists’ fault, and the fact that our soldiers don’t go to church.   In these circumstances, argues Kemp:

For us to expect Sgt Alexander Blackman, when under extreme battle stress, unequivocally to behave by the more rigorous moral standards of a previous age when the rest of society no longer does is cowardly and itself immoral.

There is a lot more like this, and there will be a lot more to come, as Blackman’s defenders seek to exonerate him, or get a reduced sentence on appeal.

Societies that believe that their wars are always fought from the moral high ground, between ‘civilized’ countries and ‘barbaric’ terrorists and insurgents, don’t like to see evidence to the contrary.   As a result soldiers who behave like Blackman are rarely prosecuted.

No French soldiers were ever convicted of the horrendous crimes carried out by the French army in Algeria.   Lieutenant Calley only served a couple of years of house arrest for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, and hundreds of soldiers who carried out similar crimes never even went on trial.   Calley was also portrayed in America as a ‘victim’ of war, while the men, women and children who he murdered were reduced to faceless invisibility.

British society generally behaves the same way, and with so many people falling   over themselves to find excuses for what Blackman did,   it is worth keeping the following essential facts in mind: that a British soldier coolly and knowingly violated a corpus of laws and conventions regarding the treatment of captured prisoners that goes back to the formation of the International Red Cross in Geneva in 1863, with the collusion of his three companions.

In doing so,   he stopped being a soldier and became a common murderer.   That is why the judge gave him a life sentence.

And that is why, like any other murderer,   he should do his time.



  1. Richard Carter

    8th Dec 2013 - 9:50 am

    Fine piece, Matt. And the Mail is continuing its tawdry campaign with a piece that says Blackman “should have his sentence halved to a maximum of five years.
    That is the overwhelming view of the public in a poll conducted for The Mail on Sunday…” (and one third of people asked said that the murderer shouldn’t go to prison at all!). The piece also contains a quote from unpleasant right winger Gerald Howarth resurrecting the story about “the Taliban routinely [stringing] the limbs of our dead soldiers up on trees.” No evidence, of course. There’s also support for their campaign from equally unpleasant but left wing – and thoroughly discredited – Eric Joyce. But at least Paddy Ashdown says in the piece that “we go into these countries to defend the law so we cannot break it. If we do so, the law must take its natural course and it has.”

    Meanwhile elsewhere in the Mail is a story about killings (by our brave boys, natch) in Iraq. The headline reads: “British soldiers to face 11 more ‘trials’ into the deaths of Iraqi civilians following a ‘human rights’ ruling by the High Court.” Don’t you just love the way that trials and human rights are put in inverted commas?

  2. Nik H.

    8th Dec 2013 - 4:23 pm

    As gruesome as this story is, and having just watched the video, I still want to point out that there is some good in this: It shows – unlike in the US – that the UK military does not fuck around in such cases! I have to say though that I am disgusted with those idiotic, jingoist attempts to justify the actions of that “brave man”. He shot a wounded, helpless Afghan in cold blood. No matter what that “idiot”, as they referred to him, did beforehand: You don’t kill him. Period. The church part made me laugh though. What a fool.

    • Nik H.

      9th Dec 2013 - 10:49 am

      Jesus Mohammed Buddha Christ, I just reread this. I meant to say the UK military justice system does not fuck around when it comes to punishing murder, no matter the circumstances. Wow. Well there you go, ze english can be vvery tricky, ja.

  3. Andrew Munn

    31st Oct 2015 - 7:41 am

    Firstly I will say that I have a relative who did 2 tours of Afghanistan with the RAF.

    I suspect that this soldier’s actions could have contravened the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POW’s. Summary execution.

    If this soldier hadn’t been brought to justice, would he have faced the risk of being hauled in front of the ICC for a war crime?

    On the Allied side we were rightly outraged by the treatment of our guys at the hands of Imperial Japan. Can we now condone our own troops doing the same or similar. I for one do not.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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