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The recent news around “Marine A’s” (Alexander Blackman) successful appeal to have his conviction changed from murder to manslaughter made headlines. The act which led to Blackman’s conviction took place in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in 2011. On the day in question, Blackman was filmed shooting dead an injured man on the ground. During the killing, Blackman can be heard clearly citing Shakespeare, followed by an acknowledgement that ‘I just broke the Geneva Convention’. Furthermore, he announced, after the killing, that ‘It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us’. All of which seemed to suggest that this was an open and shut case, but such a conclusion would ignore both the military context and apparent public feeling.
For many, this appeal judgement appeared to vindicate Blackman and excuse his behaviour on the grounds of mental health. The media circus, which surrounded both the original conviction and the later appeals (the first reduced the tariff on his life sentence from 10 to 8 years), almost seemed to imply that he had been acquitted rather than his conviction amended. Indeed, for those who supported Blackman, many of which were military personnel, the fact that he had even been charged was seen as an affront to the dignity of both the soldier and the Marines.
It is interesting to consider why the case has caused so much furor. Blackman was the first British soldier to be convicted of murder, the crime itself was recorded (inadvertently) for posterity but the case raises much wider questions. For a criminal justice system which is based primarily on Classicism’s understanding of crime and punishment there seemed to be very little focus on Blackman as an individual responsible for his own behaviour. After all, Blackman made clear his rationale for the killing, even going so far as to cite the Geneva Convention and remind his colleagues that they could never talk about these events. However, the continual focus appears to have been on his chosen occupation as a military man, representative of all those soldiers who went before and those who would follow the same career path. Rather than individual agency and motivation, it would appear that the focus has been on conditions of war and the nature of soldiering as well as, his supposed mental state on the day.
Outside the Royal Courts of Justice, on verdict day, Blackman’s wife claimed that the downgrading of her husband’s offence was a better reflection of “the circumstances that [he] found himself in during that terrible tour of Afghanistan”. Whilst civilian courts have long paid heed to evidence of mental health conditions, it is worth considering whether they would go to such lengths for a civilian, regardless of past trauma or the circumstances of their crime. Likewise, we need to acknowledge that the modern servicemen (unlike his conscripted WWI/WWII/National Service forefathers) does not find himself on the battleground but has chosen to enlist in the military with all that such a career entails, in the twenty first century.