In reducing a British marine’s murder conviction to manslaughter, allowing him to be released from prison in a matter of weeks, the Court Martial Appeal Court and the guilty party, Alexander Blackman, have ruthlessly dispatched any notion of ethics in war.
The incident Blackman was tried for took place in Helmand Province on 15 September 2011, as part of the British effort in the War in Afghanistan. Blackman was one of a group of Royal Marines who stumbled upon a Taliban fighter, who had been seriously injured by Apache Helicopter gunfire.
Blackman ordered his fellow marines to drag the injured man across a field, out of the sight of a British Ground Surveillance System, and to cease administering first aid. He then shot the man in the chest with a 9mm pistol, saying ‘There you are. Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt’, adding ‘Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention’. The footage, captured on another marine’s helmet camera, came to light during an unrelated investigation carried out by British police.
During his trial by court martial, Blackman said that he believed the victim was already dead, but in November 2013 he was convicted of murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment. This made made him the first member of the British armed forces to be convicted of murder in relation to the War in Afghanistan. Told that his actions had ‘betrayed and put at risk the lives of other British service personnel’, he was given a minimum term of ten years, which was reduced to eight on appeal.
Afforded a second appeal in front of the Court Martial Appeal Court, this time Blackman’s defence team claimed he was suffering from mental illness when the shooting occurred. They argued that fresh psychiatric evidence provided him with the ‘partial defence of diminished responsibility’, and the five judges of the appeal court were inclined to agree.
Although they noted that the victim was defenceless and that Blackman had taken steps to conceal his dastardly act, and although they admitted that Blackman ‘still retained a substantial responsibility for the deliberate killing’, they concluded he was suffering from an ‘adjustment disorder of moderate severity’. Its symptoms can include ‘depressed mood, anxiety, worry, a feeling of an inability to cope, with some degree of disability in performance of the daily routine’, and the disorder is not necessarily apparent to the person who suffers from it.
The problem is that Blackman’s adjustment disorder seems wholly inseparable from the fact of troops waging war. The judges reasoned that Blackman had been suffering from ‘exceptional stressors’ during the time of his deployment, which increasingly affected him the longer he was in command, and that ‘a consequence was that he had developed a hatred for the Taliban and a desire for revenge’.
Although Blackman appeared to show rational planning in moving the victim out of sight of the surveillance system before making a series of witty remarks, the judges felt ‘the fact that he acted with apparent careful thought as to how to set about the killing had to be seen within the overarching framework of the disorder which had substantially impaired his ability to form a rational judgement’.
If stress and a hatred of the enemy are sufficient to cause the sort of mental illness which renders troops irresponsible for the full extent of their actions, it follows that troops should never be sent to war. And if they are sent to war – and if Alexander Blackman truly is guilty of manslaughter rather than murder – then who will call his superiors, the heads of the British armed forces, the Ministry of Defence, and the warmongering politicians what they really are? When will they be tried for murder?