Claire Blackman, the wife of ex-marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman, 39, jailed for 10 years for the killing of a Taliban insurgent, says her husband is not a murderer. He acted in a moment of madness under extreme duress and sincerely wishes he could undo his action. The sentence, a minimum of ten years in jail, is too harsh, she feels. An incident like this in time of war should not be compared with a murder in more “ordinary” circumstances. The execution happened on the battlefield.
Mrs Blackman does not condone the shooting, she fully admits it should not have happened, and her husband could not be more penitent and ashamed. She questions though, whether those who pass sentence, can fully comprehend the conditions and the mental strain he was under.
The Military have come down very hard on the former royal marine, stripping him of his rank, dismissing him with disgrace and calling it a “heinous crime.” Formerly known as Marine A, they deprived him of his anonymity as well. General Houghton, head of the Armed Forces, said “murder is murder” and did not consider clemency. The Judge Advocate, General Blackett, said the reputation of British troops had been tarnished, and they would be in danger of revenge attacks.
Claire Blackman disagrees. “Death on active service in a war zone in somewhere like Afghanistan is sadly, an everyday occurrence” she said in an interview. Death is everywhere at all times, and there is a continual threat of being killed yourself. Unlike the army, the Taliban are not in uniform. You have no idea who to trust.
Chris Terrill, who conducted the interview with Mrs Blackman, has been asking the question; was this soldier a criminal or a casualty of war, since this case first came to light. He’s an Emmy award-winning journalist and filmmaker who has the unique civilian distinction of being a Green Beret – an honorary marine. He has spent a lot of time embedded with the marines, most recently in Helmand province and undergone the experience of coming “face to face with the most horrible war.”
Terrill knows at first hand what it is like inside Rorke’s Drift, the most “dangerous square mile in Afghanistan” where Blackman was stationed. Terrill arrived there just as Blackman’s unit were leaving. It is behind enemy lines. The marines are there to divert the enemy, in a troop of 35 men, cut off from the rest of the outside world. Whilst they do the dangerous work of distraction, bomb disposal work goes on in a village about a mile to the north. They were, as Terrill put it, the “red rag” to the “Taliban bull.” Days before Terrill arrived, there were 4 dead and many terrible injuries to the patrol.
The base was not a secure place, far from it. It was a ramshackle old farmstead with low mud walls. The entire countryside for miles around was riddled with bombs, small ones that would tear off limbs, bigger ones that would reduce a man to what the soldiers, with gallows humour, described as “pink mist.” Another nickname for the base was IED Central. Grenades would often be lobbed into the compound. Chris Terrill quickly realized he was in a place where, beyond a low and crumbling wall, roamed a pack of people determined on one thing. To kill them all. It was, literally, hell on earth. Temperatures regularly peaked fifty degrees, adding to the atrocious conditions. As they went out on their patrols, called “Afghan Roulette” every man knew each step he took might be his last.
The Taliban would hang body parts in trees to taunt and goad, and these would often be booby-trapped. To risk being captured by them meant certain terrible torture. To see the limbs of close friends displayed in this way as “trophies” took a psychological toll on everyone’s mental health, no matter how professional they were, and how much they tried to focus on the job in hand. Terrill himself, despite being an observer, not a soldier, soon felt consumed by anger, loss and grief, powerful emotions he struggled to deal with. He understands, as few can, that war can recalibrate a man’s mindset.
Royal marines are an elite, and undergo the toughest military training but that does not turn them into automatons. In situations like Rorke’s Drift they are faced with ceaseless conflict and carnage day and night. Nothing can ever prepare you for that, says Terrill, or what it will do to your mind.
The central contradiction to Sergeant Blackman’s story is that he crossed a boundary and broke the rules of the Geneva Convention. In warfare, an enemy killed would normally equate to duty fulfilled, but not if he is taken prisoner. Blackman was filmed as he shot a Taliban fighter in the chest and told his comrades to keep it quiet. He knew he had broken the rules of the Geneva Convention.
His wife insists that he thought the wounded man was already dead. Even so, he should not have discharged his weapon. It was the “madness of the moment.” She does not believe that this makes him a murderer.
Many agree with her. Petitions of public support calling for Blackman’s release have been organised to be presented at 10 Downing Street, and are collecting signatures in the tens of thousands. These include senior military personnel and MPs. Civilised rules of law should not apply in war zones is the basis. “He killed the enemy, that is what he was trained to do.” His punishment is the most severe to be meted out to any serviceman on active duty abroad since WWII.
Sergeant Blackman’s lawyers have announced they will lodge an appeal against the sentence and against the conviction. His 15-year service record prior to this was exemplary. He had done several tours of duty in Afghanistan. Marine B, who filmed the killing, was acquitted. He should not have been wearing a camera on his helmet.
If this marine was suffering from combat stress and killed in a moment of madness, does that make him a murderer? The court have said yes and sent him to prison for ten years. His wife says no.
By Kate Henderson