The first and last British admiral to be courtmartialled and shot was, of course, Admiral Byng in 1757.
But the more I read about the fate of Royal Marine commando Sergeant Alexander Blackman, the more I wonder whether it isn’t time we revived the tradition for those of our top brass who fail to do the right thing.
Sgt Blackman, you may remember, was the marine given a life prison sentence two years ago for having “murdered” a Taliban insurgent while on patrol in Afghanistan.
At the time, like many people, I felt deeply troubled by the court martial’s verdict. The Taliban gunman was already fatally wounded when Sgt Blackman finished him off with a shot to the head. There was no possible way in such hostile territory that the dying insurgent could have been treated in the field, let alone casevaced, without seriously jeopardising the safety of Sgt Blackman’s men. In effect, the man was a goner and the sergeant was doing him a favour.
But still the court gave this hugely respected NCO, with an impeccable record of service in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a life sentence for murder.
What shocked me almost as much as the sentence was the cant of the people who sought to defend it.
These included the Judge Advocate General (JAG), who presided over the trial and said:
“You have provided ammunition to the terrorists whose propaganda portrays the British presence in Afghanistan as part of a war on Islam in which civilians are arbitrarily killed.”
Bill Dunham, Deputy Commandant General Royal Marines, who called the incident:
“Truly shocking and appalling”.
The then-head of the Armed Forces, General Sir Nick Houghton, who said:
“Murder is murder, this is a heinous crime.”
Independent columnist Joan Smith, who objected to the marine’s misquotation of Shakespeare as he dispatched his victim. Which made him quite the antithesis of nice, civilised soldiers like Wilfred Owen, she informed us.
And even, I seem to recall, one or two of my military-minded friends on Twitter who rather shocked me by rehearsing some sophisticated drivel about the marine’s behaviour having gone well beyond the bounds of acceptability, how he was a bloody fool for getting caught and he had to be made an example of, and so on.
I thought all this was weapons-grade bollocks at the time and I feel it even more strongly now that I’ve read the background details in the Daily Mail, which is campaigning – with thriller writer Frederick Forsyth and others – for Sgt Blackman’s conviction to be overturned.
Several things have become clear which really didn’t get sufficient airing at the time of Sgt Blackman’s conviction.
One is just how fraught, intense and unpleasant had been the tour leading up to the incident.
In a single bomb blast, his protege Lt Augustin and Marine Sam Alexander, 28, who had won the Military Cross on a previous tour, were killed. Others were maimed.
Horror followed horror. The Taliban displayed in a tree Royal Marine body parts torn off in another explosive blast, to taunt and demoralise the survivors — the kind of medieval barbarity that would surely be enough to test any man’s state of mind.
On another occasion, Blackman and his men had to hunt for a missing soldier who was subsequently found after being horribly tortured, executed and dumped in a watercourse.
The Mail doesn’t go into details about what that torture looked like. But I think we can infer it from an earlier article when an unnamed marine described the fate they knew awaited them if ever they were captured by the Taliban: they would be “skinned alive and beheaded.”
These mitigating circumstances, it is being argued, should have been taken into account by the original Royal Navy court martial. Indeed, what the Mail has discovered is that several key details which might have helped Sgt Blackman’s case were deliberately suppressed by the Navy’s top brass.
The conclusion that looks increasingly likely is that Sgt Blackman was hung out to dry by the top brass, partly as a PR move to show the Muslim world (see the quote from the Judge Advocate General above) that Britain holds its serving men to high standards, partly in order to cover up the muddled strategic thinking, gung ho overreaching, and high-level incompetence which led to Sgt Blackman’s unit wasting their lives and limbs on an utterly futile mission in the arse end of Helmand where they should never have been in the first place but had to be, obviously, because obeying stupid orders is what soldiers – marines especially – are required to do.
Traditionally, the quid pro quo for this selfless dedication to duty is that, when things get tough, the senior officers back their men to the hilt. But in this case, only one – admirably brave – officer has fallen on his sword: Blackman’s commanding officer, Col Oliver Lee resigned his commission in disgust at his treatment. Everyone else involved in the case, including the jury at the court martial who have privately admitted to having been put under huge pressure from their superiors to convict Sgt Blackman, appears to have decided to make discretion the better part of valour.
To me this stinks.
What Sgt Blackman did was completely unremarkable by the standards of almost any war you can name. During the Second World War – especially after the Malmedy massacre at the Battle of the Bulge – the Americans routinely executed captured Germans, particularly if they were SS. More recently, in Afghanistan, I know that it was standard operational procedure for some US units not to take prisoners on certain missions. Anyway there’s a world of difference between what Sgt Blackman did and cases like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam where over 300 unarmed civilians were massacred. The latter incident, clearly, was an example of such disgraceful indiscipline and inexcusable cruelty and bad judgement it had to be punished. Not so, I would argue, Sgt Blackman’s behaviour which was, in any case, closer to a mercy act than a war crime. The only difference between what he did and what thousands of soldiers have done in combat since time immemorial is that it happens to have been recorded on a camera, with audio.
Indeed, you could argue that Sgt Blackman’s most serious crime – by which I mean the real reason he got his murder sentence – was using politically incorrect and highly disrespectful language before dispatching the wounded man. In other words Sgt Blackman wasn’t being tried for what he did – something which in the context of every battlefield in history is entirely routine – but rather for how it might have looked in the eyes of people who know nothing of war but nonetheless feel comfortable deluding themselves that administering the coup de grace to a fatally injured enemy combatant is somehow akin to, say, putting a bullet in the head of some random civilian on the streets of London.
Sgt Blackman wasn’t a criminal but a sacrificial victim in a PR exercise designed, as that Judge Advocate General tacitly admitted when he delivered his verdict, to send out a signal that in the war on terror the British are the nice guys.
Well I can see why it might suit our political class – the people responsible for the ill-thought-through and counterproductive foreign adventures in which men like Sgt Blackman have to fight – to indulge this fantasy that wars, at least where our side is concerned, can be played out like games of cricket.
But what I find hard to understand or forgive is the military top brass’s willingness to play along with it.
What they should have said is this: “War is hell. We’re perfectly happy to go on fighting wars for you: it’s our job. But we’re never going to be able to do that job effectively if you insist on sending our men and women into combat with one arm tied behind their backs. Not only is it fatal for morale, disastrous for recruitment and tactically suicidal, but it also virtually guarantees that we’re going to fail in the main purpose for which exist: defence of the realm. No, really. This thing you’re trying to make us do with one of our best soldiers, Sgt Blackman, is going to send out to the enemy a message quite the opposite of the one you intend. They don’t need showing that there’s an order of difference between, on the one hand, a side that at every turn tries to minimise civilian casualties even at the cost of its own men’s lives and, on the other, a side which skins its prisoners alive before beheading them and which dangles the severed limbs of IED victims like Christmas tree baubles. That’s because they know this stuff already. So all you’re doing when you make these pathetic gestures – hanging out Sgt Blackman out to dry pour encourager les autres – is to confirm another thing they know already. You’re telling them how weak you are; how uncommitted; how easily frightened. And in doing so you are therefore giving succour to the enemy, weakening our armed forces and making life for British citizens even more dangerous than it was already. It’s for this reason we will not allow our courts martial process to be abused to make some half-arsed political propaganda point that isn’t going to work.”
But they didn’t. None of them did apart from Col Oliver Lee.
I hope, if I’d been in their shoes, I would have found the moral courage to protect Sgt Blackman by whatever means necessary.
Moral courage, unfortunately, is something that appears to be lacking among the high-ups who chose to make him their fall guy.
Do I think Admiral Byng should have been shot for not having done his utmost against a French fleet?
No, of course not. But then unlike the guilty men responsible for the court martial that led to Sgt Blackman’s conviction for murder, I don’t believe in throwing sacrificial victims to the wolves to set some pointless example.