Early next month a Royal Marine sergeant will be sentenced by a military court for murder, after he gained the dubious distinction of being the first British serviceman to be convicted of killing an enemy combatant in the twenty-first century. Marine A, as he has been anonymously known throughout his trial, will doubtless receive a lengthy prison sentence – quite possibly a life one. And rightly so: what Marine A did on that September day in Afghanistan two years ago was appalling, but so too was the situation he found himself in.
Marine A’s conviction and pending sentence has sparked a sharp debate, not between politicians but, surprisingly, between serving and former members of the armed forces, which has reflected a divide in public opinion about the serviceman’s actions and his pending punishment. Not since the abolition of the death penalty in the United Kingdom have so many people called for leniency to be shown to a convicted murderer.
The public disagreement between senior military officers at the Ministry of Defence is surprising, because they are a breed noted for closing ranks – especially when the media spotlight is on them. A former and very distinguished serviceman, Major General Julian Thompson, himself a former Royal Marine who commanded British land forces in the Falklands War, sparked the debate by calling for ‘clemency’ for the man in question, although he was also quick to condemn the brutal killing of the unknown insurgent. This view was backed up by a former commander of British troops Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp who argued that “he (Marine A) should not be treated in the same way as a common criminal” because “the battlefield is a place of horror which can twist and warp the behaviour of otherwise decent human beings.” Few would argue with that.
However, this call for clemency prompted none other than the country’s most senior serving soldier, the new-in-post Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Houghton to condemn Thompsons’ comment saying “Whereas I fully understand the views of the likes of Julian Thompson, those are personal views. They are not the views expressed from a position of current authority within the services” e.g. Houghton’s own professional view. With the exception of the Attorney General, politicians, let alone serving members of the armed forces – even the most senior of them – do not usually comment on individual legal cases, military or otherwise. But they seem to have felt the need to do so on this occasion.
Meanwhile the difference in opinion between these senior officers was mirrored by the national press. The Daily Telegraph has launched a petition entitled ‘Court martial board: show leniency to Marine A’. Writing in the same paper, Boris Johnson’s weekly article began “You can see why so many people have raised eyebrows at the verdict against the soldier known as Marine A.” Can you? On the other side of the divide, The Guardian ran a counter poll asking ‘Does Marine A deserve leniency over his Afghanistan murder conviction?’ which was only 59% against showing him leniency when I viewed the poll on its penultimate day.
Marine A’s fate will be signed and sealed by his military superiors, and that is right and proper. On a personal note, I would say, at this time around Remembrance Sunday and Armistice, when we commemorate all those tremendously brave men and women who have died serving our country, please spare a thought for Marine A, a brave man who did a stupid thing, and remember the other casualties of war – those veterans who are alive but who struggle on, often alone, with tremendous mental and emotional problems gained from the highly stressful combat environments their country sent them to. It is of course no coincidence that ex-serviceman and their families are, statistically, much more likely to experience domestic violence, marital breakdown and homelessness than their civilian counterparts.
The criminal trial for Marine A is over. But his emotional one is probably just beginning and will last longer than any sentence his military judges will give him.