The case of Marine A has once again shone a light on the conduct of western forces prosecuting the War on Terror.
Last week, the senior British soldier whom authorities have refused to name for his own protection, was convicted of murdering a Taliban fighter as he lay wounded on the ground after being hit in an Apache helicopter attack.
The “battlefield execution” took place in 2011 and was filmed by one of Marine A’s colleagues. In the gruesome video, which was shown to the military Court Martial, Marine A is seen firing a round into the chest of his victim saying, “There you are, shuffle off this mortal coil you cunt. It’s nothing you wouldn’t have done to us.” Turning to the others, he added: “Obviously this don’t go anywhere fellas. I’ve just broken the Geneva Convention.”
The murder would have remained under wraps were it not for the fact that footage of the incident ended up on the laptop of a civilian who had taken it to a shop to be repaired. The computer contained offensive images – unconnected to Afghanistan – and when the police were called to investigate they discovered the grisly footage of the Marines.
Marine A now faces a life sentence – which in practice means he will have to serve the full extent of whatever prison tariff the judge decides – for committing a war crime.
One would think that most people would consider it a condign punishment for killing a helpless man in cold blood, even if he was an adversary. Not so it seems. Quite disturbingly, the fate of Marine A has elicited a wave of sympathy from fellow Britons. Before he was convicted supporters set up a Facebook campaign to “free” him – to date the page has had almost 48,000 likes. And now as he awaits sentencing there have been calls from MPs and senior ex-defence staff for clemency to be shown. Their feelings are shared by a large part of the British population. In a Daily Telegraph poll last week 47% of respondents believed that Marine A deserves leniency.
Their rationale falls into two broad categories. The first is that the Taliban don’t give a rat’s arse about the Geneva Convention, so neither should we. In all probability, if the roles were reversed, Marine A’s decapitated torso would probably be occupying some dark corner of the worldwide web as a propaganda video for his captors. In doing unto others as they would do unto him Marine A has done nothing wrong.
The moral slippery slope created by this attitude is self-evident. But more importantly it also reflects, and may even be encouraged by the logic that underpins the War on Terror and the way this war is being prosecuted.
It should be remembered that lacking any basis in international law the War on Terror itself is an illegal enterprise that is tantamount to state gun-slinging. From its outset, and from the very top, the message it sent out was ‘to hell with the legal niceties, we will prevail by any means necessary’. Recall the US’ use of the term ‘enemy combatants’ after 9/11, a move designed to strip captives of their right to prisoner of war status conferred by the Geneva Convention. And the routine use by Bush Junior of the need to protect “civilisation” and “the civilised world”, implying of course that the enemy was uncivilised and barbaric, and by extension, not worthy of the same rights as ourselves.
Since it began the War on Terror has been waged pretty much ‘by any means necessary’, incorporating military occupation, extra-judicial assassinations, extraordinary rendition, systematic torture, humiliating treatment, and the jettisoning of such basic human rights as habeus corpus. When foot soldiers pose in front of chained and naked detainees in Abu Ghraib, or film themselves urinating on dead Taliban fighters, or shoot dead defenceless people in the manner of Marine A, they are merely following the logic of a war which has as a matter of policy set aside normal moral limits. Armed forces personnel have admitted as much themselves. In the public inquiry into the brutal 2003 killing of Iraqi hotel worker Baha Mousa by British forces, an officer of the regiment which detained him testified that his soldiers thought “all Iraqis were scum”.
The second, equally less convincing, line of reasoning is that soldiers who commit atrocities in the line of duty do so under incredible strain and this should constitute some mitigation. Senior politicians and former defence officials have advanced this argument saying that soldiers and police officers have to take instant decisions under tremendous pressure which should be taken into account if they make the wrong decisions. Some have even called for the mandatory life sentence to be scrapped for such crimes.
What this amounts to is the admission of the principle that the cumulative strain of daily combat duty somehow absolves soldiers of the moral limits expected of everybody else. It also flies in the face of the facts of the case, especially those contained in the incriminating video.
For one thing, Marine A is no rookie who just happened to be overwhelmed by the pressures of the battlefield; he is a sergeant with many years’ service. Secondly, the video clearly shows him taking a calculated, considered decision to kill the Taliban fighter, in the full knowledge that it was a crime under international law. Thirdly, together with two of his colleagues who were acquitted of the charge of murder, known as Marine B and Marine C, he seemed to have nothing on his mind except murder when he found the wounded rebel. In fact Marine C is heard before the killing saying: “I’ll put one in the head if you want.” Marine B replies: “Take your pick how you shoot him.” But Marine A cautions: “Not on his head, that’ll be fucking obvious.” In a diary kept by Marine C, he wrote that he felt “mugged off” that he had not been able to “pop off the Taliban shitbag” himself.
Expressions of support for Marine A and calls for clemency ignore the fact that he deliberately killed his victim only to satisfy some twisted egotistical desire and/or enforce an equally perverted concept of justice. When he comes to be sentenced on December 6 any term of imprisonment that fails to reflect the enormity of his crime would be an insult to the victim’s family and also send the ever so dangerous message that fighting on the front line makes it acceptable to cross near-universally accepted ethical boundaries.