“I don’t think I am a murderer,” says ex-Royal Marine sergeant Alexander Blackman. “I don’t think I was a murderer. I am not a murderer.”
But if what Blackman did in a field in Afghanistan almost 11 years ago doesn’t make him a murderer, what is he? On 15 September 2011, after a firefight, Blackman and two other marines from J Company walked across the field to the injured body of a Taliban fighter who had earlier attacked a military checkpoint. The insurgent had been hit by some of 139 anti-tank bullets fired from an Apache helicopter but was still alive.
According to the Geneva conventions, Sgt Blackman should have treated the enemy as one of his own and summoned a helicopter to carry the man to hospital. Such an action must require a heroic moral compass on the battlefield: hard indeed to save the life of someone who 30 minutes earlier was bent on taking yours.
Instead, head-cam footage shown in this gripping if too narrowly focused documentary reveals what happened next. Blackman shot the injured man at point-blank range. He is heard saying: “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you cunt. It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.” After killing the man, he said to his men: “I have just broke [sic] the Geneva convention.”
Soon after, the cover-up began. Some marines saw the headcam footage before being ordered to delete it. But the Royal Military Police, who investigated the killing, managed to forensically reconstitute it. As a result, he was charged with murder in 2012.
Blackman told investigators the man was dead when he fired the bullets. That was what he meant when he said he had broken the Geneva conventions: desecrating a corpse is outlawed, too. The retrieved footage showed otherwise and in 2013 the man known then only as Marine A became the first member of the UK armed forces in recent history to be convicted of battlefield murder. In jail in Lincoln, he says, he feared attacks from Islamist-sympathising inmates.
Much of War and Justice: The Case of Marine A (Channel 4) investigates why he wound up there. When Blackman shot the insurgent, psychiatrist Neil Greenberg tells us, he was suffering from adjustment disorder, a condition the professor estimates affected a quarter of British forces personnel who served in Afghanistan, and which manifests as anxiety, depression, distressing emotions and disturbing conduct.
It’s amazing that that proportion is so low. Given that the daily risk for soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan was getting a bullet in the brain or losing their legs by stepping on an improvised explosive device – not to mention the growing sense of the utter pointlessness of their mission underlined here by Blackman and his fellow marines – the figure could have been 100% and be unsurprising. Maybe the Afghanistan veterans who did not suffer from adjustment disorder are the ones we should worry about. Blackman, who told the Guardian two years ago he didn’t realise what mental state he was in at the time of the killing, also had his personal demons: he was mourning the recent death of his father, a fellow serviceman.
Greenberg’s testimony was used in Marine A’s successful 2017 appeal to have his conviction reduced to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. He is now living under licence in Taunton with his wife, Claire, who campaigned against his murder conviction.
Claire says she was never a supporter of the war. Fair enough, but it would have been interesting for her husband’s views to be probed. Did he think the oxymoronic “war on terror” was worth fighting when he was in Afghanistan? And now?
If not a murderer, then what is Blackman? A killer no doubt, but perhaps also a victim of a war that achieved nothing worthwhile but left 457 British service personnel dead while, according to Brown University’s estimates, about 240,000 Afghans, 70,000 of them civilians, died. But let’s not overemphasise his victimhood: he gets hugged by strangers in the street; the man killed, in this programme at least, isn’t even given a name.
This documentary, though compelling, is remiss in not considering the real victim. “Nobody seems to worry about him,” said Jeff Blackett, the judge who presided over Blackman’s first trial. “That was a man who might have been spared but was killed.” We don’t find out what happened to his corpse. A stronger programme would have tried to track down his family and comrades and asked what they thought about how he died. We don’t even know for sure that the Taliban fighter was mortally wounded: it remains a possibility that Blackman pulled the trigger to put him out of his misery, though his Shakespearean words after he pulled the trigger indicate the marine was hardly motivated by compassion.
And yet, in a week in which the Ministry of Defence has proposed an independent review of how it handled allegations that the SAS executed unarmed civilians in Afghanistan after BBC Panorama revelations that one SAS unit was involved in 54 suspicious killings in one six-month tour in 2010-11, how valuable to have this programme and to reflect on what we do in sending women and men to fight. The extent to which the “war on terror” was fought by psychologically damaged killers in uniform is still unclear. The extent to which that war was a tragic waste of life, less so.