I rose very early on Saturday morning. My mind was disturbed, I couldn’t sleep and I had a need to hold my Son, to watch him sleep, to smell his head. As I stood by his bedside I gave thanks to a God I don’t believe in for that moment, for that opportunity to be with my Son, to experience something that may be denied to ‘Marine A’ for a very long time.
Clearly I am distressed by the personal tragedy of ‘Marine A’ and his family, but I am also concerned that our Courts will make two profound and enduring mistakes: the sentencing of ‘Marine A’ to a long minimum tariff and the release of the names of the five Marine defendants. I believe that both of these outcomes must be avoided.
‘Marine A’ was convicted of the murder of an enemy combatant who, seconds before, had been doing everything in his power to kill him and his comrades. We cannot know for certain what was going through the mind of ‘Marine A’ at the moment when he murdered the wounded Talib, but, in determining if there any mitigating circumstances, we should certainly consider his situation. We must also, surely, consider the messages that the Court is sending by its judgements.
‘Marine A’ is almost certainly not a psychopath or a sociopath, people with these personality disorders make poor soldiers. It is also safe to assume that ‘Marine A’ did not set out to murder that day – there is no evidence of premeditation – and that he knew murdering Afghans is immoral, illegal and harmful to the Mission. So what went wrong?
If politicians decide to put heavily armed Marines in the same area as a committed enemy and a hostile population, people are going to get hurt. As a professional soldier you accept that you are expected to fight and kill and you accept the risk of being killed or wounded, but this experience can change you permanently in ways that are not easy to perceive at the time.
As an experienced Sergeant ‘Marine A’ would have made the protection of his men from unnecessary risk his top priority. Through the course of that tour, as he reflected on the death and wounding of his comrades, he would have become more risk averse and much less likely to gamble the lives of his men to save a mortally wounded enemy – remember, the Taliban give no quarter.
We can also assume that ‘Marine A’ had direct experience of the killing and wounding of the enemy and regrettably this has consequences. This is because moral sensibility becomes numbed, and sometimes perverted, by the act of killing. The point is better made by this stanza from Wilfred Owen’s Apologia Pro Poemate Meo:
Merry it was to laugh there –
Where death became absurd and life absurder.
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.
The mind attempts to protect itself from the psychological damage arising from killing, to rationalise actions that are irrational, to justify what can’t be justified. If these attempts are unsuccessful the outcome is madness, as Wilfred Owen’s own experience attests.
It is also possible that ‘Marine A’ had reached the conclusion that many of us reached – the war in Afghanistan was lost and all of the killing, suffering and sacrifice was pointless. When confronted by such futility one seeks a way out, physically, mentally and morally, but this escape is denied to professional soldiers and particularly to those who lead them. Frustration and anger can be released in a number of ways but a release there must be.
In these examples the common thread is that ‘Marine A’ was subjected to experiences and forces that arose from an extremely stressful situation that other people put him in and that he couldn’t escape. His ability to cope, to arrest and/or mitigate his moral degeneration, was exceeded by his repeated exposure to these stressors. His culpability for his actions is mitigated by these factors and he should be treated leniently by receiving a low tariff from the Court.
There are some who seek to make an example of ‘Marine A’. Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP, has said that leniency is not justified because it would send the wrong message to our enemies and make it more likely that captured/wounded soldiers would be executed. This argument is false as our enemies already engage in such conduct as an act of policy and they implement this policy with a ruthlessness that comes from religious certitude. His message would fall on deaf ears.
What message would a long sentence send to our own soldiers and their families? A wholly negative one, of course. For those who escape permanent psychological damage from their war experiences it doesn’t take long for one’s moral compass and rational capacity to be restored. These men are unlikely to concur with Julian Lewis and his ilk, and they are also unlikely to be prepared to fight for them in future. Who could blame them?
‘Marine A’ has been convicted of murder and he awaits sentencing. The Court, however, made a judgement that could have very far reaching consequences for the families of the convicted and accused – it has permitted the release of their identities (pending appeal). It seems that the establishment of this country not only wants to make an example of these men, but also to make a burnt offering of their parents, siblings, partners and children.
Many hundreds of British Muslims have partaken in jihad and returned to our shores trained to kill, terrorise, and sabotage. Why is it in the interests of justice for the identities of these Marines to be made public and thereby enable their families to be intimidated, terrorised, and perhaps killed by British jihadis? The families of these Marines played no role whatsoever in the murder of an enemy combatant on a battlefield thousands of miles away and they should be protected from those who seek to do them harm.
I don’t know ‘Marine A’ but I suspect that the thought that his family, and the families of his men, are now at risk is keeping him up at night. I believe that he deeply regrets his action for the life he took, for the damage done to his Unit’s reputation and for the time he will now serve in prison. He doesn’t deserve the further punishment of harm coming to his family.
I sincerely hope that ‘Marine A’ can return to his family very soon to enjoy precious moments with his kin and that in the interim they are able to live free of malicious retribution. I wish all of these things because, if I had been subjected to the same circumstances, ‘Marine A’ could have been me. So, leniency, but not clemency, and let’s keep the families out of this.
A word for the wounded Talib who in all probability was neither a religious fanatic or an Islamist. He should have received medical attention and in 99.99% of cases this is exactly what happens. As I stood over my Son on Saturday morning my thoughts were also of his family and their grief.
In trying to make sense of it all I reached the following conclusions. First, there would be a lot less fighting if the people who sent young men and women to war, and those who sit in judgement of them, shouldered some of the burden and experienced its mind altering horror themselves. Secondly, most wars utterly fail to achieve the policy objectives set for them and therefore the outcomes do not justify the cost in lives, distress, and sanity. On this Remembrance Day perhaps we should reflect on that and resolve to do everything we can to avoid wars and the thousands of individual tragedies they entail.