True Crime Tuesdays: War and Justice: The Case of Marine A
Helen Archer | On 02, Aug 2022
Channel 4’s War and Justice: The Case of Marine A is a shocking, thought-provoking documentary – but not, perhaps, in the way that the filmmakers were expecting.
It tells the story of ex-Marine Sergeant Al Blackman, the first British soldier to have been convicted for murder on a foreign battleground since World War II. In 2011, while serving in Afghanistan, Blackman and his company found an injured insurgent, who had been shot down by some 130 rounds fired at him from an Apache helicopter. The Marines pulled him to what should have been safety. Instead, Blackman shot him at point blank range, while muttering “shuffle off this mortal coil, you c*nt” and admitting that he’d just broken the Geneva Convention. Then the cover-up began.
Director Stephen Bennett interviews Blackman and a couple of the soldiers who were with him that day, as well as lawyers, a psychiatrist and Blackman’s wife, Claire. The documentary leans heavily on the work of war reporter Chris Terrill, who has spent years embedded with various troops, filming and writing from behind the front lines. He also takes a lead role here.
Most of us will know the facts of this highly publicised case, and most of us will already have formed opinions about it. After his conviction, Blackman amassed much support from the general public – and specifically from members of the Forces. The Daily Mail launched a crowdfunding campaign to free him and raised £804k from the British people. Spurred on by his wife, over 100,000 people signed a petition urging his release, and many marched to Downing Street, where officers ushered Claire straight to the door of Number 10 to hand it in personally. Blackman’s original 10-year sentence was eventually overturned and he is now a free man, albeit with a manslaughter conviction.
What is shocking here, though, is Blackman’s complete lack of remorse, his refusal to take any accountability not only for the killing, but also for the lies and cover-up afterwards. Even now, with the footage available (the audio of which is presented here), Blackman doubles down, describing what happened as “a sequence of events”, as though it had nothing to do with him. “All joking aside, I never killed him. He died of his injuries,” he says. His claims that he thought the insurgent was already dead is directly contradicted by the audio. “Stop fucking whinging. Fucking prick”, we hear, as the insurgent is disarmed, apparently writhing in agony, followed by: “Anyone want to do first aid on this idiot? …. I’ll shoot him in the head if you want.” Blackman checked that the Apache helicopter was out of sight before firing the fatal shot. The surrounding Marines were told to destroy the tapes of the killing, which were later recovered during a separate investigation.
War is hell, of course. It desensitises and it traumatises. Blackman won his appeal on account of his mental health, with one psychiatrist for the defence diagnosing the him with “adjustment disorder”. That does not, however, explain why so many people were willing to support him even after watching the tape. Towards the end of the film, various interviewees are asked how they would describe the killing. “War,” says one of his colleagues. “It was an incident, it was something that happened,” says Blackman’s wife. Jonathan Goldberg QC, meanwhile, says “I came to see this as a real love story”, as he refers to Claire’s tenacity in freeing her husband.
Much of the programme presents it as such. Viewers are treated to footage of the couple standing outside the pub where they met, fondly reminiscing about how they met, and later, after his release, are filmed walking hand in hand, reunited at last. Perhaps this strange mawkishness could have been offset by some exploration into the identity of the dead insurgent. Instead, he is nameless, faceless, and there is no one to speak for him. The viewer – and the contributors – can only guess at what led him to the battlefield that day.
This could be seen as an insight to the hundreds of thousands of likewise faceless Afghans who were killed during Operation Enduring Freedom, but unfortunately the documentary reinforces rather than undermines the idea of British supremacy, never quite interrogating the kind of mindset that leads to such dehumanisation and senseless loss of life.