Most of us will never know the horrors of war: we leave the front-line butchery and barbarism to others, content to judge the effectiveness of military strategy from our armchairs and calmly pontificate on the relative morality of battles lost and won. We have no understanding of the dreads or traumas of armed conflict, and little apprehension of the kind of mind which can rationally entertain killing another human being on the orders of another.
But those who sit in courts martial do: they are officers and warrant officers qualified by experience to judge fellow members of the armed forces. They are better equipped to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused, and mete out just punishments to those who breach military discipline or violate the rules of engagement.
The Royal Marine convicted of murdering a wounded Taliban insurgent has been sentenced to 10 years in prison - a 'life' sentence - to be served in a civilian prison. After 15 years of dedicated service to Queen and country, he has also been dismissed 'with disgrace' from HM Armed Forces.
Sergeant Alexander Blackman shot the Afghan, who had been seriously injured in an attack by an Apache helicopter, in the chest at close range with a 9mm pistol. He then calmly quoted Shakespeare to the dead man, and urged those who witnessed the shooting to keep quiet because (as he admitted) he had breached the Geneva Convention.
The sentence has created something of a stir: some say he shouldn't be imprisoned at all; others that 10 years is far too harsh a punishment. After all, Afghanistan is a war zone and the Taliban are out to blow us all to kingdom come, irrespective of Aquinas's 'Just War' theory or the neat codifications of the Geneva Convention.
Liberal Democrat ex-Royal Marine Lord Ashdown considers 10 years to be a fair and justified punishment for cold-blooded murder: British soldiers can't go round arbitrarily shooting prisoners just because they're having a bad hair day. Conservative former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth thinks it a rather harsh sentence. He said: "The highest standard of discipline must be maintained in the Armed Forces and this man obviously committed an offence. But 10 years is too much. Five years would be more appropriate."
Politicians are not, of course, the wisest of judges or the fairest dispensers of justice. We separate Parliament from the Judiciary in order to mitigate mob notions of justice and to ensure objectivity in sentences.
In a carefully reasoned judgment
, Judge Jeff Blackett explained:
..Hearts and minds will not be won if British service personnel act with brutality and savagery.
..You treated that Afghan man with contempt and murdered him in cold blood. By so doing you have betrayed your Corps and all British Service personnel who have served in Afghanistan, and you have tarnished their reputation. In one moment you undermined much of the good work done day in and day out by British forces and potentially increased the risk of revenge attacks against your fellow service personnel. You have failed to demonstrate the self discipline and restraint that is required of service personnel on operations, and which sets British troops apart from the enemy they fight.
..Your actions have put at risk the lives of other British service personnel. You have provided ammunition to the terrorists whose propaganda portrays the British presence in Afghanistan as part of a war on Islam in which civilians are arbitrarily killed. That ammunition will no doubt be used in their programme of radicalisation.
Helmand must be hell. We can have absolutely no idea what paranoia creeps into the recesses of the mind as you look up and see the severed limbs of your friends and colleagues hanging from branches, like baubles on a Christmas tree. That's what the Taliban do, you see. They can't be quite human, can they, to do such a barbaric thing? And if they capture you prisoner, you can be sure they will taunt you, then torture and dismember you, too. They will laugh as you plead for mercy, and spit in your face as you cry out to God for release.
But we are not like them, are we?
No matter how tired, stressed or disturbed you are, you can't go round shooting a pistol at people just to let off steam.
But what if they're not quite people?
Of course, the murdered Afghan was a human person, created in the image of God. But don't you have to persuade yourself in warfare that the enemy isn't quite as fully human as you are? Don't you have to suspend in some manner their universal human rights? At the very least, don't you need to dispense with their right to life?
How else can you bomb their homes and shoot them to death? Don't you have to close your mind somewhat to the fact that they have wives and children and feel love? Don't you have to condition your conscience to ignore the fact that they live with bread, like you? That they feel want, taste grief, and need friends?
The thing is, Sergeant Blackman's commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Chapman, has publicly spoken in support of the marine. He said: "Fundamentally he is not a bad man. In fact, in almost every respect, he is a normal citizen tainted only by the impact of war."
He is not a bad man.
Not bad like the Taliban.
And not as bad as convicted IRA terrorist Seamus Martin Kearney
, who will serve just two years for the cold-blooded murder of part-time police officer John Proctor in 1981. Judge David McFarland said the shooting “has to be one of the most appalling murders committed during that period of our history known as ‘the Troubles’".
“That a man can be targeted when he is attending a hospital to visit his wife and newly born son, continues to appal all right-minded members of society.. He was murdered in a most brutal fashion and given no chance to defend himself or escape.”
Curiously, the Judge said: "The passage of 30 years has in no way diminished the brutality of this murder."
But a merciless 10 years for a loyal Royal Marine who is fundamentally not a bad man, and a paltry two years for a convicted IRA terrorist who manifestly is, leaves one questioning the integrity and credibility of British justice.