The accumulation at the time of the royal marine Alexander Blackman who died, a wounded Taliban. This month, his murder conviction was reduced to manslaughter
Those who are provided with powerful weapons, and the authority to kill with them, must be subject to the law. Forget that all-too-common Hollywood trope in which the brave fighter is restrained by the rigid constraints of armchair lawyers. “Shit, charging a man with murder in this place is how to distribute speeding tickets in the Indy 500,” says the Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now. No, the soldiers should be grateful to the law, because it is the law, and its underlying moral, that distinguish soldiers from murderers. The law is the soldier’s friend.
That is why it is not only left-handed civilians, who are morally squeamish about a sergeant of the Royal Marines shooting dead a wounded and unarmed prisoner of the Taliban in Helmand province in Afghanistan. The military is too. A marine – or Alexander Blackman, as we now know him – has received a dishonorable discharge and a murder conviction – now reduced to murder – after the movie, it has been discovered of him shooting the prone Taliban with the words, “shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt”. The Daily Mail led the campaign to have his sentence reduced. And those who would normally insist on the importance of personal responsibility talked about instead of the extenuating circumstances of combat stress disorder. But whatever the stresses in which he has operated, he shot an unarmed man, and must not become the poster boy for military valor.
Compare the Blackman case with that of the Sergeant Elor Azariah in Hebron last year. As a Blackman, Azariah died, a wounded, semi-conscious enemy combatant who poses no threat. The two episodes would not come to the light, he had a passing shot of the event. And it was the senior leadership of the military, as the IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, who condemned Azariah actions more clearly with the political right and press the main responsible of the state to Azariah, of a kind of national hero, abandoned by its leaders. In just a few days of Azariah recovery, Eizenkot wrote to his troops: “We will not hesitate to exercise the right with the soldiers and the commanders who deviate from the operational and ethical criteria according to which we operate.” That seems entirely measured and sensitive. But to speak of such an attitude Eizenkot has been widely condemned as a traitor.
The mood in Britain was very different, with the author Frederick Forsythe, who also campaigned for Blackman’s release, accusing the army top brass to betray him, and now issuing dark threats that those who were responsible for Blackman to be in prison are the next to be targeted. Listening to Forsythe, the lawyer, who should be locked up and a disgrace to the killer who should be garlanded with gratitude.
No wonder that it was difficult for someone as human rights lawyer Phil Shiner to obtain a fair trial in the court of public opinion. Shiner clearly cut corners in seeking to bring those who have violated the law to justice. It has exposed the torture and death of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa at the hands of British soldiers in 2003, and, yes, he lost his way, the desire to expose other such abuses. But do we really think that doesn’t happen in other dark corners, or the far-field where there were no cameras to record the event? But the joy with which many greeted the eye black autumn – this February, has been struck off as a lawyer, as well as improper behavior, reveals the extent to which we have so little time for those who are struggling to bring to light the injustices perpetrated by our soldiers. No one is interested to hear this kind of things.
I used to teach at the UK Defence Academy in Shrivenham, Oxfordshire. The course has been ethical leadership for the newly promoted major in the process of taking their first responsibility of command in hell holes, like the Helmand province. It was an intimidating gig, with a few hundred soldiers looked down on me, all in uniform. And we all knew that we were discussing could mean the difference between life and death, to shoot or not to shoot, in some corner of a stranger. This ethics was not something distant, academic, or abstract. To them and to me it felt terribly important. And we the vast majority of these soldiers an injustice if we refuse to distinguish between those who break the law and those that do not. All in the Helmand province, it was pointed out. Not all shot the prisoners.