Royal Marines in Afghanistan

Our soldiers must never again be hung out to dry

Published in The Daily Mail, 7 December 2016. © Richard Kemp

Justice is finally being done. It’s outstanding news that after three years of unremitting nightmare for Sgt Alexander Blackman, the authorities appear to have seen sense.

Even at this stage, it cannot be a foregone conclusion that his conviction for murder on the battlefield will be dropped, but that is the only sane outcome. It is the one the public demands, through its momentous backing for the Daily Mail’s campaign.

He should be released from prison immediately. If there are any legal means for him to be given bail pending his release, it should happen today. The courts should move immediately. Get him out now.

If there was any justice, Sgt Blackman should spend Christmas with his family. That would be a great morale boost not only for them, but for the many supporters he has in the Armed Forces — as well as millions like me who are sickened to see a brother in arms treated so treacherously.

He should not be in prison at all. This case should never have come to a court martial. The charges could have been dismissed by a senior military officer — and if none of his superiors had the courage to do that, the Defence Secretary should have ruled he was not to be tried.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission declared yesterday that Sgt Blackman may have been suffering from ‘diminished responsibility’ due to stress and battle fatigue.

I could have told them that. In fact, I said it loudly and often, and so did many others. Our voices were ignored — the sound of common sense and, on the ground, military experience, silenced by political correctness.

Having studied the case, I know he was not acting in character when he shot a Taliban insurgent — a man who could well have been dead already when Sgt Blackman fired.

This occurred at the end of an assault on a British base in Helmand Province, during a ‘tour from hell’ in which Sgt Blackman’s comrades had been tortured and their body parts hung from trees. He was a man suffering severe battle fatigue at the end of a six-month tour of duty. That is such a significant factor in his case, I am appalled it was not given far more weight.

I have seen similar situations, where people under immense, prolonged pressure behave in uncharacteristic ways. It doesn’t take much experience or knowledge to understand this, and it shouldn’t take a psychiatrist five minutes to figure it out . . . not three years.
Before Sgt Blackman’s trial, I spoke to his lawyer and got the distinct impression that the court was not interested in seeking expert judgment.

Without pressure from the Mail and its readers, this turnabout would not have happened. It shows the power of a free Press, not only to draw attention to injustices but also to highlight the scandal of faulty equipment and the appalling treatment of soldiers who have been wounded or discharged.

But we can’t afford to relax. For one thing, there is the spectre of a retrial, possibly on charges of manslaughter. This would be a further gross miscarriage of justice.

It cannot be stated too plainly: there should not be any new charges. Once the murder conviction has been wiped out, it should be recognised that Sgt Blackman was a fine, brave marine who risked his life for his country.

Let’s never forget that his only ‘mistake’ was to be courageous enough to go into action for his country in the first place, instead of staying safely at home — with all his armchair critics — in Britain.
There can never be enough compensation for him and his family, but what can be done is to ensure his future psychological health is safeguarded. To spend three years in prison, after already undergoing what he experienced in battle, will — take it from me — have inflicted considerable damage to his mental health. We owe him everything we can do to put that right, as far as possible.
On a broader level, this insidious hounding of our troops has to stop. The Press must continue to fight for soldiers who are being victimised for political ends. Ministers need to start backing our soldiers, not indulge in schoolboy posturing.

Sgt Blackman was the first British serviceman ever to be convicted of murder on the battlefield. He must also be the last. The military hierarchy must understand the terrible damage done to the morale of our fighting troops by such betrayals as this.

One day, we will send marines and soldiers into battle again. They need to know they are being supported by the ruling class, not hung out to dry.

Image: Royal Marines in Afghanistan. Source: Wikimedia Commons