Clarification: The image previously associated with this blog did not depict any of the Royal Marines recently tried by court martial for murdering an injured Afghan insurgent in September 2011
Like the majority of the UK, I was disturbed by the recent conviction of a Royal Marine Commando, charged with murder. However, as much as the conviction in the eyes of the law and polite society is correct, and the law as we know must be upheld, it still leaves an extremely unpleasant taste in the mouth, for there is much more to the background of these incidents than meets the eye. It may be open and shut in the legal sense, but is not open and shut in the moral and ethical sense. The test maybe the law, but the proving ground is the battlefield. Now before you start getting all excited into thinking I am about to justify murder, wait one second and consider if you will some social mitigation.
The murder happened five months into an arduous six-month tour of Helmand province in 2011 with Marines A, B and C based at a command post. Their task was to bring stability and security to Helmand. Against this backdrop, the threat posed by so called enemy combatants determined to rid Afghanistan of ISAF forces continued as the annual fighting season began that summer. Every day patrols would come under attack.
The troops were expected to treat injured insurgents with dignity and respect. Those are the rules set out by international law, the Geneva Convention and the rules set out by the British Military, which we all as service personnel try to abide by. Those are the rules and rightly so.
Marine B was under attack every single day and there had been 10 casualties in just one 24-hour period.
Marine C said the deaths of his troop commander and the serious injuries suffered by two others in the bomb blast were 'pretty devastating'. "It was a serious loss to both our command post, the troop and the company four people that we were all good friends with, absolutely devastating really," he said. Obviously the gravity of the situation had further instilled the reality - things could very easily spiral out of control.
In total, the British troops carried out thousands of patrols, deployed on 92-partnered operations with the Afghan National Security Forces, and discovered nearly 10 tonnes of explosive. They also built 40 new schools and eight new clinics.
So, what makes young men shoot wounded and dying combatants on the battlefield, and not afford them the gentlemanly conduct afforded the enemies of yesteryear? The Germans, Argentines, Italians have all felt the brunt of the might of the British Military machine, all had their vast armies dissembled by our gallant advancing troops. Did atrocities happen? Sure. Were they limited to the few? Of course. What then makes this incident different? Where is the gentlemanly conduct, the white flag of surrender, the handshake of truce, the cup of tea with the British POW camp commander as you are led to medical attention and then custody?
I will tell you where it is. It is on rose-tinted old movies portraying the good ole chaps and their advance to contact in a glamorous-romanticized-chivalrous era of crap.
In reality, war is bloody, noisy, messy, the stinking stench of cordite and burnt flesh, the noise of attack helicopters overhead and 'danger close' bombing runs, the fizz of shoulder mounted rockets and whacks of RPGs, the screams of the enemy and your own "man down" or "help me please" or "I'm bleeding to death"; the petrified voices of young soldiers trying to attract a medic to come to their aid.
Expeditionary war is a dirty, bloody, abhorrent affair that involves young men taking metal projectiles laced with fast burning metals to cause as much sharp and blunt penetrative trauma of their flesh as possible, involving occasionally a close with the enemy that involves drawing bayonets. The reader will probably be unaware that British troops have killed with the bayonet only this last year! Out of ammunition and forced into such close proximity with enemy combatants that the order to fix bayonets was given and acted upon.
The Taliban does not like surrendering. It hides behind non-combatants, and often lays down mortally injured where it fell with hidden grenades and booby traps waiting to take you with them to their paradise.
But what makes this story in Afghanistan all the more poignant is that we are not fighting a uniformed, gallant, courageous and disciplined enemy who wants to toil laboriously in combat by aligning itself with the Geneva Conventions or rules of war. They do not follow any rule or any law, save as for the one where it is acceptable to hide behind women and children, sit inside a mosque and use it as a fortification. Where an enemy that thinks nothing of executions in public of captured British and American soldiers or citizens, sawing their heads off whilst they are still alive and putting images all over the internet. Half the American and British soldiers I know do not want to be there, we are not fighting for the liberty of our sceptred isle, or for freedom. We are fighting a ridiculous insurgency with ridiculous odds, without much provenance to support the counter terrorism theory behind it all, and with cowards in Whitehall pretending to understand leadership. It is a game with us all pretending it is honorable and just. Well guess what? None of it is just, honourable or chivalrous. Get real people.
During this tour, where the murder occurred, seven marines were killed with more than 40 injured, many maiming injuries. Marines A, B and C saw the deaths of their company commander and another marine, who died together in a massive IED blast.
The Taliban hung body parts from dead and wounded Marines on trees. A mark of tribal, archaic and medieval misery not seen since Vietnam and Korea.
Marine B said he was under attack 'every single day' and there had been 10 casualties in just one 24-hour period. He said, "My friend's legs had been put in a tree; I picked my mate's brains up. I have no good memories of that tour. My way of coping with that was to put it away in a box at the back of my head and essentially as best as I could delete it from memory."
So, do we need to ask what makes men with adrenaline coursing through their bodies in the spur of the moment commit acts like this? What made this marine shoot a man at close range in the heart, euthanising him from his already presumed fatal injuries? Let's explore that for a moment.
We are raised to know that spitting at someone on the streets is assault; we are not witness to citizens dying from disease in the streets of London as our forefathers were. We live healthily and well with one of the longest life expectancies in the world. Yet every now and then, we send our brave, well adjusted, socially developed, none-spitting-at-people-in-the-street troops into combat with bayonets fixed and teeth gritted, to thrust, cut and penetrate enemies of the state. Medieval brutality occurs, a prime evil default setting comes to the fore, in stark contrast to back home. We send these troops into harms way to watch their friends cut up and hung in trees, to see their mates die by the roadside begging for their mothers. Then when one of them silences a dying fatally injured combatant with a single gunshot to his chest while blubbing a few stupid and bravado riddled words, showing off no doubt to the younger marines, we sentence him by the same standards we would back home. Murder. Life in prison.
We allow ourselves to enter these vacuums and then seek to legitimize, criminalize and militarize the same. That surely is the one true crime.
Let those who are without sin, cast the first stone..