The Betrayal of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM

“He broke the RoE.  He shot an Afghan man who wasn’t offering an immediate threat.  That makes it murder.  Court martial him.  He’s obviously guilty!  What’s that you said?  Battle fatigue?  Well, tie him to a post, blindfold him, and shoot him at dawn.  Usually do that with ‘battle fatigue’ cases, don’t we?”

Well, no, not for most of the last century, and shooting men suffering from ‘shell-shock’ or ‘exhaustion’ or ‘combat stress disorder’ or ‘psychoneurosis’ is surely today abhorrent to almost everyone, as public support for the grant of pardons to the Great War victims undeniably demonstrates.  The attitude of the public may indeed be in part emotional, but the official agreement with that attitude is not.  The new official attitude is owed not to emotion but to a greater understanding of the medical factors contributing to battle fatigue.

Or so it was thought … until we read the weird comments of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) while giving sentence at the tragic conclusion of the court martial of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM.  Let us look at these comments to see what they reveal, and while doing so we should remember Admiral Byng[1].

“Your actions have put at risk the lives of other British service personnel.”

Was the court actually given evidence to support this claim?  If it was, then was it rigorously examined?  If it wasn’t, then why did the Judge raise it?  Which British service personnel are now at risk who were not at risk before this Afghan was shot (and before all this publicity intended to show that ‘justice’ is seen to be done)?

“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.”

The elision of civilians and terrorists here plays the al-Qu’aida game, and the suggestion of providing ammunition is emotional Whitehall PR-speak directed not at the man he was sentencing, but at the news media.  If allusions are to be made to the civilian-terrorist dualism in Afghanistan, then, as must be expected from a naval commodore (equivalent to an army brigadier or a one-star general) even when not a seagoing naval officer, an explanation that the Taliban operate in the translucent sixth dimension[2] of the counterinsurgency battlefield cube is required.

Here are two more examples of emotional PR-speak dispensed from Whitehall:

“… you have betrayed your corps and all British service personnel who have served in Afghanistan, and you have tarnished their reputation.”

—   betrayed ? tarnished ?  (This non-nautical naval officer is out of his depth.)

and:

“The victim was particularly vulnerable because he was seriously wounded …”

That word vulnerable in PR-speak seeks sympathy for an enemy armed with an AK47 and a grenade, wearing no uniform, who had recently been attempting to murder (by the court’s definition) Sergeant Blackman and his men.  The Geneva Convention governs the wartime conduct of its signatories, and leaves the non-state, non-signatory Taliban free to torture prisoners in ways it is unnecessary to describe here, where they might be read by children, but are well-known to the Royal Marines.  Sergeant Blackman did not “execute” anyone.  He killed an enemy on the battlefield, which was his job and ought to be still, but regrettably he did so outside the Rules of Engagement (the asinine RoE we are all aware must be rewritten before the next campaign).  One cannot be certain that the JAG’s remarks were written for him in Whitehall, but being based on a false equality it does seem so, and thus one asks why he did not hear the ghost of Admiral Byng whispering behind his chair.

Although the issues of ‘temporary insanity’ and ‘the balance of his mind was temporarily disturbed’ were not reported in the news media, and thus may not have been raised during the court proceedings, the following was quoted as part of the JAG’s comments:

”We accept that you were affected by the constant pressure, ever present danger, and fear of death or serious injury.  We also accept the psychiatric evidence presented today that when you killed the insurgent it was likely that you were suffering to some degree from combat stress disorder.  While we acknowledge your personal circumstances and the immense pressure you were under, we note that thousands of other service personnel have experienced the same or similar stresses.  They exercised self-discipline and acted properly and humanely – you did not.”

So “combat stress disorder” was accepted as a contributing factor ! 

But then, amazingly, incredibly, it was dismissed because others with the same or similar stresses have coped.  Everyone who has been in action, and by that is meant real action with incoming fire dangerously close, knows that it is not possible to assess whether stresses are the same or similar for two men standing next to each other, and knows also that if stresses could be assessed as the same, their effect on two men standing next to each other could be very different.  But the JAG appears never to have seen action.  He appears to have had no personal experience that could qualify him to make such judgements.  (However, he is a senior RFU official and an experienced centre three-quarter, so he understands what being offside means.  Here he is offside, and he surely knows it.)  Of course, he did have sitting with him three officers who are Royal Marines, but we do not know what experience they have had under fire, and we do not know and we shall never know what views they expressed, what guidance they offered to the JAG, or how harsh they believed the sentence.

Those who have walked the walk, their four tourniquets strapped loosely in place before they went out through the wire, aware that every step might lose a limb or two, and their genitals, perhaps their life, know well that Sergeant Blackman, deliberately disregarding the Rules of Engagement, was temporarily insane.  His action was totally out of character and contradicted every report in his excellent service record since he entered the Royal Marines as a recruit.  That crucial fact must not be pushed aside.

His splendid career to date, and the high regard in which he is held both by his seniors, grateful for his loyalty and reliability, and by the men he led and protected and taught and mentored and comforted, have been used by commentators as obvious reasons for clemency in the sentence, but other commentators are asking why these factors rang no alarm bells to alert the Ministry of Defence, long before the decision to convene a court martial was made, to the unwelcome reality that this was a clear case of temporary insanity.

Unwelcome”?  Yes!  Read on.

Battle fatigue does not follow clear rules.  Men can survive horrific stress with a short prayer as they go out through the wire each morning.  “Dear God, if it’s to be today, please make it quick.  I’ve done everything I can, so now it’s up to You.”  And then they forget, concentrating on their individual and team duties, until they are back at base … and then, when they want to sleep, they remember.

These men ignore personal safety as they fight to protect their ‘mates’ who, they know, fight to protect them.  But for their patrol commander, a man such as Sergeant Blackman, there is this crucial difference:  he not only has to protect his ‘mates’; he bears full and awesome responsibility for their physical and mental health, and he knows, and he knows that he dare never forget, that any mistake he makes can kill them or, far worse, allow them to be captured.

The youngsters a patrol commander leads out through the wire may not all have conventional families, but most have parents and siblings, many have close friends, and some of these friends might already have borne them children.  The responsibility for these, too, weighs on him.  And then there is his own family.  The total emotional load can overwhelm.

Let us follow him out through the wire.  At 100°F it’s not as hellish as it will be later, but his sweat-smeared vision and the shimmering haze already reduce his visual awareness.  Horizontal sightlines are short; he wants height and a slant vision, but the small hand-launched drones give inadequate coverage, and the soda-straw view from the Reaper drone somewhere six miles above them, even when available, gives no comfort.  He needs a guardian sitting half a mile above him, scanning ahead and on the flanks with high-powered binoculars and infra-red sensors, and talking to him.

Initially the chosen route is through sparse vegetation rooted in loose earth where shallow mines are easy to lay and to conceal, but fortunately the flanks are open and movement there will be seen, which means there will be no movement until an ambush is sprung with an explosion.  His point man is sweeping with the detector, but finding nothing increases the probability of any IEDs there having too low a magnetic content.  The dangers change as they move into fields where the crops are chest high.  It is more difficult here to recognise disturbed ground, and the enemy could be lying within a few yards of their path, prepared to erupt with automatic fire at point blank range.  Watching the flanks is so tiring, continually twisting the body.  His men are spaced at wide intervals to ensure that a typical IED would kill or maim no more than two of them, unless it was one of a daisy-chained group integrated with a skilled ambush team, so a surprise jump attack from a very short range would be answered by the adjacent men.  But it would be nice, he thinks, to have an Auster on top of him, as his Dad did in Korea, looking down vertically so nothing could be hidden, telling him where the Taliban were concealed, which way they were moving, what weapons they carried, and how numerous they were .  His fine-tuned senses predict trouble near; his memory recalls similar silence before they were attacked two days ago.  Then his radio man whispers that the link to base has failed, as it so often does, and as it crucially did during the last attack when Dusty was killed.  They are approaching the compound they are to search, he senses his men’s tension, then an explosion triggers automatic fire and rocket grenades from behind the wall ahead and he has a man down.  This they have practised; he has drilled his patrol to cope exactly with this.  Two men are attending to the mine’s victim, his radio man is now calling for air support, but without response, the remainder of the patrol is returning fire at the compound, and he is choosing which flank will be the more likely source of the second attack while lamenting the lack of an Auster to watch both flanks for him.  And now all the time, never ending, he is questioning what mistakes he might have made that could still be rectified, what routine he might have left undone that could yet still be covered, how they will withdraw if the extent of the opposition prevents him attacking the compound, clearing it, and using it for shelter until an Apache arrives.  Johnny has lost both legs and much of his lower body.  For him a medical evacuation will not be necessary, but two men are down with very serious shrapnel wounds and a third has a bullet in his right shoulder, so that radio must be made to work.  Where is the air support?  How numerous is the enemy?  Where are they hiding?  Which way are they moving?  Weapons?  What do they have with them?  He needs a Chinook for medevac and an Apache for suppression, but where can the Chinook put down with reasonable safety, and will the Apache be willing to fire on the compound when there is a fair chance of there being non-combatants inside?  He has reached Johnny, whose bloody corpse has been lifted onto Buster’s broad shoulders, gives the signal to withdraw, and warns of probable danger from the right flank.  Should he order his men to conserve ammunition?  Bill, struggling ten yards ahead of him, carries the shredded  remains of Johnny’s legs, but he looks away, forcing himself to concentrate on the immediate problem of a fighting withdrawal without air cover.  He will think about his letter to Johnny’s pregnant girlfriend later.  The radio is working again, but no Chinook is available.  And the Apache will be late.  Now he must shepherd the lads back to base.  Concentrate on this.  Concentrate.  Tomorrow it will all have to be done again.  And the Taliban will know that.  Perhaps then there will be air reconnaissance before they set out … yeah, as if … This is his forty-ninth patrol.  Will he be home for Tom’s birthday?  Will he ever be home?  God, it’s hot.  Concentrate.  Concentrate.  Bill needs help.  He can hear him sobbing.

So, on four or five or six days a week a patrol commander may have to live with this type of pressure, week after week.  Remember: stress is cumulative.  (Perhaps JAGs aren’t told this.)  His principal enemies are said to be Afghan insurgents, but he has been well trained to deal with these.  The second line of enemies are in Whitehall, where few understand either the monumental size or the enormity of the tasks he has been given, and no one, it appears to him, wants to understand.  How else, he so often wonders, would inadequate numbers of men have been sent to Helmand right at the start of the campaign.  Why else is their equipment so inadequate for the work?  Why else has there never been top cover for their patrols?  Unanswered questions such as these have piled on the pressure, for the undeniable evidence of dereliction of duty, Whitehall’s Duty of Care, hits hard at the morale he labours so assiduously to foster among his men.  Whitehall repays his loyalty with disloyalty, reinforcing always the adage that Loyalty in today’s Armed Forces is a One-Way Street.

The patrol commander’s insoluble problems are too many to examine in a short blog entry, so let us look at just one key factor: Top Cover, or explicitly in this case – Very Close Top Cover alias ‘Buddy Cover’.

As the Armed Forces prepared for World War II they discovered they had no light aircraft, none at all, suitable for miscellaneous logistic and liaison duties, and for artillery spotting.  None had been designed for military use.  No one in the War Office appears to have foreseen the need (just as seventy years later no one in the MoD did).  The short-term solution developed into a very successful one with the requisition of 24 civil recreational aircraft recently built in England under licence from Taylorcraft in America.  A few of these were then fitted with a simple radio and sent to France, but were recalled in May 1940 as the German Army swept towards the Channel ports.  Soon production of the new Auster Mk I began with the fitting of a more powerful engine and a military radio to what was still effectively only Taylorcraft’s civil light touring aircraft.

The Auster Mk I first went into battle in December 1942 in Operation Torch (the invasion of Algeria and Morocco by a joint Anglo-American force, albeit principally American) as 651 Squadron providing Air Observation Post for two Infantry Brigade Groups on their advance into Tunisia against Rommel’s rear formations.  This was the start of a profitable relationship between ground units and slow-speed pilots providing what today is termed ISR – Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance – a contribution that inspired one Army historian[3] to write:  “Furthermore, each Air Observation Post pilot can know and be proud that his efforts saved many British and Allied lives, a fact that has been vouched for by many infantry and armoured corps commanders, both Senior and Junior.”

But they are not saving lives in Afghanistan, and this impacts directly on morale.  It impacts directly on the troops.  It increases the pressure on their commanders.  One news report on this court martial said of the Royal Marines in Helmand that their “key concerns were their limited numbers, their lack of air support, and overwhelmingly a feeling of isolation.”  This, the JAG should note, truly constitutes ‘betrayal’ — and those responsible for this genuine betrayal did not have the balance of their minds disturbed, they were not suffering from ‘combat stress disorder’, they knew not battle fatigue.

This ”lack of air support‘”is well known by the MoD and by the public.  All the promises of air support made in Whitehall and at Westminster remain undelivered, and the desperately needed Chinooks promised by the present Prime Minister are for 2015, after the withdrawal is complete.  (His predecessor refused the extra helicopters continually requested because, it has been reported, a woman at the FCO advised him they were unnecessary, and thus still the resupply convoys roll out each day to play at ‘Afghan Roulette’ on mined roads flanked by snipers.)  Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, who was killed in this way, was one of those officers whose regular reports lamenting the absence of air support and requesting its delivery were ignored[4].

Does Whitehall have an excuse?  No.  Absolutely none at all.  A successor to the Auster Mk I, built with 21st century technology, smaller in size but similar in payload and with much greater performance, has been available since that warrior leader, the Rt Honble Anthony C.L. Blair, sent insufficient men inadequately equipped into Helmand Province to defy the advice of Liddell Hart and Colonel T.E. Lawrence[5].  The aircraft is inexpensive to buy and economic to operate.  It was highly praised by the MoD’s own test pilots who evaluated it over a period of four winter months, and strongly recommended for the top cover of convoys and foot patrols by the MoD’s own tactical research analysts at the Defence Academy.  It was rejected by their superiors in Whitehall as unnecessary, then rejected again and again as unnecessary, while the numbers of dead, mutilated and psychologically afflicted continued to mount, and the cumulative combat stress on commanders of unescorted foot patrols took its toll.

All the proceedings to date suggest that the administrative decisions which have led to Sergeant Blackman’s present hell have been made by Whitehall warriors, either in suits and ignorant of war or in uniforms but have never had to fight for their lives and sanity in hellholes such as Helmand.  This blog has commented previously on the toxic treatment of the Armed Forces by certain members of the senior civil service in the MoD in Whitehall.  It has been explained in the words of Dr Johnson: “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”  The suits in MoD who have not been soldiers, finding their petty jealousies amplified by proximity to those who have seen real action, externalise what Johnson saw as their mean thoughts.  If there had been any involved who could think clearly, then the Defence Secretary, it is quite certain, would have been advised that this case was a ticking bomb, that it could wreak enormous damage on the impoverished morale of the Armed Forces, probably incurable long-term damage, and that a quiet enquiry finding a justifiable verdict of temporary insanity would be by far the best way to proceed.

If the Defence Secretary had been properly advised by his civil servants after the court martial had been convened and the case was known to the public, then he would have announced that justice must have priority over administrative convenience, and that if the failings of the MoD in the Helmand campaign would receive unwelcome attention they would all have to live with it.  But what the MoD now has is a SNAFU[6] FUBAR[7] to rival the Nimrod and the SOF Chinook SNAFUs.  Mr Hammond may be given all sorts of reasons why he has no need to become involved, but actually there is no escape for him.  The inexperienced Judge Advocate General’s charge of betrayal has ensured that.  Betrayal ! ! !  Betrayal?  Whose?

Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM, was betrayed by Whitehall when he was told to cope with insufficient numbers of men, betrayed again when nothing was done to improve morale by reducing the sense of their isolation, betrayed again when the top cover he would have had in the last major war and in Korea (and the American Army and Marines always had in Vietnam) was refused, betrayed again now his family is knowingly endangered by the publication of his identity, and betrayed again when, as was Admiral Byng in respect of the Admiralty’s failures, he was court martialled and sentenced with maximum publicity (and his family wilfully exposed to attack from jihadists), to distract public attention from inadequacies in the Ministry of Defence.

No “unwelcome reality” suggesting the MoD’s incompetence will be tolerated, whatever the human price, for the greater that price, the more effective the smoke and mirrors will be.  Whatever happens, those couple of hundred lives and, too, the limbs lost in Helmand ambushes, must not risk their promotions, knighthoods and bonuses.

Admiral Byng copy


[1] Executed 1757 to conceal Admiralty failings.  Petition for pardon vetoed by the MoD in 2007.

[2] The faces of the counterinsurgency battle cube (the COIN-cube) merge the three spatial dimensions with the fourth, the Time-Morale Continuum, the crucial fifth, Finance, and the sixth, into which the insurgents disappear at will, hidden among the non-belligerent bystanders or changing identity to that of innocent farmers by merely dropping their weapons onto the ground and becoming invulnerable.

[3] The Air Observation Post, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bazely, DSO

[4] Dead Men Risen, Orwell Prize winner, Toby Harnden

[5] The Point of the Spear, W.F. Hogarth

[6] SNAFU: Situation Normal All Fouled Up

[7] FUBAR: Fouled Up Beyond All Recognition

Author: WF

Editor and Archivist for the Autonomous Research & Assessment Group (ARAG)

2 thoughts on “The Betrayal of Sergeant Alexander Blackman, RM”

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