war on the rocks

The Very British Affair of Marine A

April 6, 2017

On Sept. 15, 2011, Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman shot and killed a wounded Taliban insurgent while on operations in the Nad-e-Ali district of Helmand. The incident was filmed on a helmet camera of one his fellow marines. The video recorded how the marines moved the body of the Taliban fighter to a covert location, where he was dispatched by Blackman. Having shot the fighter, Blackman turned to his colleagues, warning them: “Obviously this doesn’t go anywhere fellas. I just broke the Geneva Convention.” One of the marines replied: “Yeah, roger mate.” The video-recording was subsequently discovered by the British Royal Military Police and on the basis of it, Blackman and two other marines were prosecuted by court martial in Britain. During his trial, Blackman was allowed anonymity and went under the pseudonym “Marine A.” While Blackman’s colleagues, Marines B and C, were acquitted, he was sentenced to ten years for murder on Dec. 6, 2013. He was sent to serve his time in a civilian prison (Colchester — the military prison in the United Kingdom — cannot hold inmates for this long). Last week, this sentence was commuted to manslaughter when, on appeal, the court accepted mitigating evidence about Blackman’s psychological condition. Blackman will be released before Easter.

The commutation of Blackman’s sentence and his early release have been a cause for celebration among his supporters. Since Blackman’s arrest, a vociferous movement, “Justice for Marine A,” has protested against the judicial proceedings. Although they do not deny wrongdoing, Blackman’s supporters have opposed his criminal prosecution. For them, the death of the Taliban fighter was a tragic incident caused by the pressures of an intense tour in which a number of Blackman’s comrades had been killed or wounded. In this situation, they claim that the application of normal legal standards to Blackman was prima facie unjust.

Frederick Forsyth, the best-selling novelist, has been an important figure here. As a supporter of the Justice for Marine A movement, he has been an advocate for Blackman’s release and the quashing of his sentence. Indeed, Forsyth has argued that the prosecution of Blackman amounts to a personal betrayal of a combat soldier by the Ministry of Defense. In a recent article in response to the commutation of Blackman’s sentence, Forsyth described the prosecution as “a shambles and a glaring miscarriage of justice.” Reading the transcript of the court martial, Forsyth condemned “the limitations of the never-been-in-combat establishment.” Of course, Forsyth and Justice for Marine A do not explicitly claim that Blackman is innocent. By his own admission, he is not. However, in line with Justice for Marine A, Forsyth implies strongly that given the operational conditions, Blackman should not have been tried and should never have been given a custodial sentence.

The Blackman case has received little international coverage. It is a very British affair. However, it has important international implications. A number of U.S. troops have been similarly prosecuted in American courts. On March 12, 2006, four members of First Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Regiment, 101st Airborne entered a house in Yusufihay, south of Baghdad, and murdered an entire family whose daughter they also tortured and raped. Four out of the five soldiers responsible were found guilty and imprisoned by a court martial, while the fifth, who had left the Army, was charged in a civilian court. In Maiwand, Kandahar in January and February 2010, five soldiers from 2nd Battalion, 1st Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade murdered three Afghan civilians in separate incidents, allegedly collecting body parts as trophies. Ten soldiers were eventually convicted with sentences up to life imprisonment. In March 2012, Sgt. Robert Bales left his patrol base alone and murdered 16 civilians in Kandahar Province. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in the United States. The case of Israeli Sgt. Elor Alzaria, who was found guilty of manslaughter for killing a wounded Palestinian, bears a close resemblance to the Blackman case, not least because of the vociferous demands for his pardon. The Blackman case is perhaps instructive.

There is no denying that Blackman’s defenders have a point. It is disturbing that a combat soldier, facing the daily dangers of patrolling, should be prosecuted as a murderer for dispatching a wounded Taliban fighter who would certainly have died anyway without medical intervention. It seems willful and unfair to criminalize a scared and tired soldier. Blackman’s actions were quite different, for instance, from the 5th Stryker Brigade’s psychopathic kill squad. It is also true that worse incidents probably happened in Helmand and elsewhere, the perpetrators of which were never brought to justice.

The Marine A case is deeply unfortunate, then, for Blackman himself, the Royal Marines, and the British Armed Forces. The anger of his supporters is understandable. But they are wrong to imply that Blackman is innocent or that a miscarriage of justice has occurred. Once the authorities were aware of the video recording, they had a duty to prosecute Blackman. If they had not proceeded with a prosecution, then they would have been guilty of colluding in a breach of military law. In the era of Snowden and Assange, the notion that this video would not have found itself into the public domain is unfeasible. The authorities had to act.

Moreover, however harsh, prosecuting Blackman was the right thing to do. The pressures on Western troops in Afghanistan have been widely recorded. Nevertheless, the rules of engagement were impressed upon them in training and on deployment to Afghanistan. No soldier or marine could claim to have been unaware of when they could and could not use lethal force. Even Blackman’s supporters could not claim that he made a mistake in the heat of battle, when a mitigating plea would surely have been sympathetically heard. Indeed, Blackman himself clearly understood the rules of engagement and admitted quite voluntarily that he had knowingly and deliberately breached them. Because of the extreme conditions in Helmand, the appeal court accepted the claim that Blackman was suffering from “adjustment disorder” so that, while still rational, he was acting with diminished responsibility. Nevertheless, while commuting his sentence, there was no suggestion that the charges against him should be dismissed.

The intrusion of international law into armed conflict has certainly complicated operations for Western forces. Rules of engagement now require a level of discipline and self-control from professional Western troops that was unknown in the past. However, to suggest that Blackman is innocent is to reject the legal basis on which recent interventions have been mounted. Domestic and international legitimacy required that British forces in Afghanistan abide by strict rules of engagement; so much so that British troops have sometimes tried to evade them. It was also widely accepted that in order to secure the civilian population, severe restraint had to be exercised in the application of military power.

A historical comparison is useful here. In Kenya, Algeria, and Vietnam, British, French, and American forces ignored the question of ius in bello (just conduct in war). Any combat method was regarded as legitimate. They applied all expediencies to achieve their goals. This involved mass detention, torture, murder, and profligate accidental killing of civilians. During the Battle of Algiers, for instance, it is now widely accepted that 3,000 Algerians “disappeared” while in the custody of 10eme Division Parachutiste between January and October 1957. The criminality of those campaigns still reverberates today with profound political implications. Even today, Algeria remains a deep stain on the French army.

Legality is not only important for the armed forces. It is also vital for individual soldiers themselves. Since the 9/11 attacks, Western forces have been asked to fight in difficult and dangerous conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is no sign of these kinds of wars ending anytime soon. Often the strategic objectives and even the jus ad bellum (just cause for going to war) of these missions are not entirely clear. They are complex, confusing campaigns in which the chance of harming civilians is high. Consequently, it is even more imperative that soldiers are convinced that whatever the strategic uncertainties, they are engaged in a just and legitimate activities at their own level. Rules of engagement play an imperative role here in sustaining the professional ethos, reputation, and discipline of Western militaries and their individual personnel. The prosecution of Sgt. Alexander Blackman might be regrettable, but the alternative is unconscionable: It is to condemn Western soldiers once again to the ignominious criminality which were routine in Kenya, Algeria, or Vietnam — and to ignore the rights of victims. Blackman had to be prosecuted so that others could serve with honor.


Anthony King holds the Chair of War Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. His most recent publications include The Combat Soldier (Oxford University Press, 2013) and On Combat Effectiveness in the Infantry Platoon (Security Studies, 2016). He is currently writing a book on divisional command which will appear in 2018.

Image: U.K. Ministry of Defence