Sergeant Blackman’s Heart of Darkness

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  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, you see, 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 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.

 

The British Army’s war porn

There is a rather nauseating but not entirely surprising story in today’s  Independent on Sunday about British soldiers gathering to watch ‘war snuff movies’ at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan for ‘morale boosting’ sessions.  An image from the Channel 4 documentary showing soldiers preparing to watch videos of an Apache attack on a Taliban target

These’Kill TV nights’ consisted of video clips showing people being killed by Apache helicopters, and were accompanied by a commentary from Warrant Officer Andy Farmer.  According to the Independent:

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”In one clip an Afghan woman is targeted after a radio dialogue between pilots refers to her as a ‘snake with tits’.

Another clip from a recent “Kill TV” night shows the cross-hair of an Apache helicopter taking aim at an insurgent. WOII Farmer gives a running commentary: ‘OK, so he’s walking along… then thinks… I’m gonna go off and get my 70 vessel [sic] virgins ’cause daylight’s coming quite quick.”

As the missile hits the target and kills the person, he says “Goodnight princess”, adding ‘this is where you see he’s actually had the clothes ripped off him by the blast’. ”

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Uplifting stuff eh?  This isn’t the first time that ‘war porn’ has made an appearance in the course of the ‘9/11 wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq.  An American porn website once offered US soldiers  free access  in exchange for posting gruesome mobile phone clips of Iraqis shot at roadblocks etc.  It was this  fondness for trophy clips and photo-souvenirs that caught out the grinning morons standing by pyramids of naked bodies during  their ‘enhanced interrogations’ at Abu Ghraib prison.

Lyndie England, Charles Graner et al thought that what they were doing was fun and they clearly expected those to whom they sent these images to react in the same way. Whoever filmed the infamous   clip of military contractors in Iraq randomly opening fire on passing cars to a soundtrack of Elvis Presley’s ‘Mystery Train’ shared the same expectations.   British soldiers also took trophy photos and video clips from Iraq, including one clip of soldiers beating up Iraqi prisoners accompanied by a commentator who can be heard taking a disturbing relish  in every kick and punch.

The history of colonial wars and military occupations is filled with episodes of the brutalisation of the occupying army on one hand, whether in colonial Algeria, Vietnam or the West Bank, and the reduction of  the ‘native’ enemy to a killable object of violence and casual atrocity on the other    But the idea that ‘snuff’ footage can have a morale-boosting effect points is something I haven’t heard before.    Warrant Officer Farmer has no apologies for the practice, telling a Channel 4 Documentary which begins tonight:

[stextbox id=”alert”]”People look at it and say you know… young lads are laughing at the enemy being killed,” he says. ‘Well, I don’t know if the Taliban do something similar but I’m sure they rejoice when they kill one of us.’ ”[/stextbox]

No doubt they do.  But that doesn’t  entitle the army to transform the act of killing into a pleasurable form of entertainment to cheer up its soldiers.   Armies that need this kind of ‘morale boosting’ are clearly losing the plot.   Coming after the Baha Moussa inquiry and another incident in which British soldiers are alleged to have carried out a ‘sickening sex assault’ on a 14-year-old Iraqi boy, ‘Kill night’  is further evidence of the corrupting impact of corrupt, futile and immoral wars on those who fight them.

And it does make you wonder about the kind of people ‘our finest men and women’ are turning into out there, who Michael Gove would like to place in the nation’s classrooms to act as role models to the nation’s youth.

Gove’s classroom armies

The riots have provided another boost for one of Michael Gove’s pet projects – the ‘troops to teachers’ programme.   In a wide-ranging  speech at Durand academy in Stockwell yesterday, the toad-like Education Secretary outlined forthcoming proposals this autumn to retrain former soldiers as primary and secondary school teachers.

This idea was first mooted under New Labour by the Tory defector Shaun Woodward, and Gove has proven to be one of its keenest proponents.   Like  pretty much everything the British political class does these days, the scheme originates in the United States.   Following the first Gulf War the US government began a programme to retrain former soldiers as teachers, and the programme has subsequently placed some some 15,000 former military personnel in the teaching profession.

According to a Panorama report earlier this year, this scheme has had some success in improving classroom discipline and pupil motivation in some schools, though research-based evidence on the programme’s effectiveness overall is patchy.   I don’t dispute the possibility that some soldiers might make effective teachers ( though the mere fact of having been a soldier should not be considered a decisive factor in determining the issue one way or another), or that soldiers with an experience of harsh military environments might have skills and qualities that could be useful  in tough inner city schools where knives and sometimes guns are the norm.

After two disastrous wars that have been punctuated by allegations  of torture, brutality, extra-judicial executions and human rights abuses, the British army can hardly be upheld as some kind of ideal  model for British youth.

For one thing, many of the qualities that Gove and others see as intrinsic to the military, such as self-discipline, resilience, motivation, teamwork and the ‘spirit of service’ are shared by other professions such as nurses and teachers, who are rarely held up as social role models.   Secondly, the military is primarily an organization of violence, with a rigidly top-down hierarchical structure that prioritises absolute and unquestioning obedience to orders coming down from above – no matter how immoral or even illegal they might be.

This is precisely the concept of ‘service’ that appeals to Gove and those who believe as he does,  that

Over the years there has been a slow, and sustained, erosion of legitimate adult authority in this country. It has been subverted by a culture of dutiless rights which empowers the violent young to ignore civilised boundaries which exist to protect the weak and vulnerable.’

For Gove,  the armed forces are the ultimate expression not just of ‘legitimate authority’ and also of patriarchal  male authority, since the creation of Britain’s ‘educational underclass’ stems from absent fathers in the home and the absence of ‘male role models’ in the classroom.  Therefore

in order to ensure that there are many more male role models entering teaching we will be launching our troops to teachers programme later this autumn, so that we can draft gifted individuals from the armed services into the classroom’.

No female soldiers then.   For Gove the feminisation of British society and the education system requires not just men, but tough manly men who recognize that

‘ the right every child deserves to be taught properly is currently undermined by the twisting of rights by a minority who need to be taught an unambiguous lesson in who”s boss.’

How will these soldier/teachers communicate this ‘unambiguous lesson’?   One of Gove’s suggestions  is to increase the range of punishments available to his new male role models, including greater freedom to use  physical force in the classroom.  In Gove’s view, there has been too much emphasis on ‘pupils’ rights’ in the classroom, so now teachers will be able to use various new forms of restraint that have yet to be defined:

‘So let me be crystal clear if any parent now hears a school say, “sorry, we can”t physically touch the students” then that school is wrong. Plain wrong. The rules of the game have changed.

Not surprisingly these proposals have been greeted  with loud cheers by the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Daily Express, many of whose readers still have a nostalgic yearning for the cane and would like to see British society run like a boot camp.    And they may yet get their wish.  According to the Telegraph there are  plans to open a new secondary school in  Manchester in the next two years, which will be run entirely by ex-servicemen.  The Phoenix Free School will

impose zero-tolerance discipline, place a heavy emphasis on sport and outdoor activities and encourage competition with a traditional house system and streaming by academic ability’.

According to the school’s patron, former Chief of Defence Lord Guthrie,the school will be ‘devoted to drawing out the best in all their pupils by demonstrating the best of today’s martial values’ and will provide a potential model for ‘ a chain of hundreds of schools across the country.’

Of course the Telegraph loves this, as it loves all things in uniform.   In the current post-riot climate of vengeance and punishment, there will be many Colonel Bagshots out there who will nod their heads in approval at such proposals.  Others may recoil in horror at the reactionary drift of a British society that is unable or unwilling to deal with socio-economic divisions and inequalities that are largely of its own making, and whose rulers are now dreaming instead of turning its under-funded education system into a vast barracks .