Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 28 March 2017. © Richard Kemp
I strongly welcome the news that Sgt Alexander Blackman is to be released soon, after his conviction for killing a wounded Taliban terrorist in Afghanistan was downgraded from murder to manslaughter.
Blackman was the first British soldier ever convicted of murder on the battlefield. This is particularly striking given the millions who fought in both world wars, and in all other violent conflicts in modern history.
Thousands of British soldiers who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Northern Ireland have been investigated for alleged murder, torture and rape. The scale of these proceedings is vastly greater than anything seen in all previous wars combined.
Have the British armed forces of the 21st Century suddenly descended into hitherto unknown savagery? Or have such horrors
previously been brushed under the carpet in a cover-up of unprecedented proportions?
Neither. The reality is that today, unlike in the past, the actions of our troops are measured by a society whose only understanding of combat is ‘Command and Conquer’ or ‘Call of Duty’; and judged by leaders who have never themselves faced enemy fire.
This includes senior military officers, civil servants, politicians and lawyers. These people not only permitted, and even welcomed, Sgt Blackman’s wrongful conviction for murder; they also encouraged and financed a large-scale legal vendetta against British soldiers, taking seriously hundreds of patently trumped-up accusations of criminal wrongdoing.
This comes not only from a lack of understanding of war but also a moral weakness that allows them to sacrifice their own fighting men in the interests of appeasing minorities that oppose the wars they have initiated and sustained.
Leaders of the past, when considering their soldiers’ transgressions in war, understood that the battlefield is an unparalleled place of horror. A place where human beings are subjected to unbearable physical and psychological pressures, danger is everywhere, chaos and confusion dominate and fighting men live each day in a state of hunger, exhaustion, fear and hideous discomfort. A place where the pressures of command can break even the strongest leader. The only place where a man’s job is to kill and be killed.
A distinction of course must be drawn between the monster who systematically lines up and machine-guns 100 prisoners of war in a French field or massacres 8,000 men and boys in a Bosnian city and the soldier who acts irrationally because of the fog of battle, because of fear, or because he has been driven too far for his mind to cope.
I am not arguing that the laws of war should be abandoned or ignored in such cases, far from it. But they should not be applied to soldiers in battle in the same way as the criminal law is applied to a south London drug dealer who sets out to shove a knife into a junky who hasn’t paid up.
They should be applied with an allowance for the unique nature of war and what it does to a human being. If such allowance had not been made in the First and Second World Wars, thousands of British soldiers would have been tried and executed for war crimes, morale would have collapsed, the army would have mutinied and we would have been defeated.
What Sgt Blackman did was terrible. Confronted with the same circumstances, I would not have acted as he did, and neither would the overwhelming majority of British soldiers. But Blackman was a man broken by combat. He contravened the laws of war and failed to live up to the standards of the Royal Marines, but as the legal system has finally recognized, he was no murderer.