I shot wounded men on battlefield says writer

Looking back: Ascherson says the deaths came to haunt him. © Marzena Pororzaly

A distinguished journalist has revealed how, 60 years ago when he was a marine, he shot two helpless and wounded enemy fighters dead. When this is done in battle, is it truly murder?

In 1952 Lieutenant Neal Ascherson was in Malaya, serving as a 19-year-old Royal Marines officer. He and his team expected enemy fighters to arrive just outside the jungle. They set an ambush and waited.

A group of guerrillas duly appeared. Within seconds, most had been killed by machine gun fire. Some ran back into the jungle. Then the firing stopped.

Ascherson walked forward and found two wounded men. The brains of one were leaking from his skull. The heart and lungs of another were hanging out of his rib cage.

‘I don’t remember a moment’s hesitation or doubt about what to do,’ Ascherson recalled yesterday. ‘I pointed my carbine and put them both out of their misery.’ One of his colleagues told him: ‘You wouldn’t leave a dog like that.’

Since the incident Ascherson has enjoyed a brilliant career as a journalist and writer. Now he has told his story in support of a man from the same unit — Sergeant Alexander Blackman.

In 2011 Blackman shot an unarmed, wounded Taliban insurgent in the chest on an Afghan battlefield. He told him to ‘shuffle off this mortal coil’. Later he admitted he had ‘just broken the Geneva Convention’.

In 2013 he was convicted of murder and given a life sentence. Like Ascherson — who admits what he did was ‘legally murder’ — he killed someone in cold blood. His detractors say he has received the correct punishment. But he is appealing, with significant public backing. And now Ascherson says the conviction should be downgraded to manslaughter.

At Blackman’s court martial, his commanding officer said he was ‘not a bad man, but a normal citizen tainted only by the impact of war’. He faced a bloodthirsty enemy and the part of Afghanistan he was in was described as ‘hell on Earth’. The court’s judgement conceded he was probably suffering from combat stress disorder.

An investigation said his unit was severely depleted and encouraged to be overly aggressive. This had led some to conclude he has been ‘hung out to dry’ to hide wider institutional failings.

The killing

Context matters, say some, and war is complex. Killing can be merciful when someone is in great pain. Soldiers have to make painstaking choices, fast, and they should always put their own men’s lives first. Blackman was doing an incredibly tough job against a murderous enemy; the situation he faced cannot be re-created in a court.

Cold-blooded killing is always murder, others respond. Taking a life is the ultimate decision and should only be made if it is unavoidable. And clear legal codes like the Geneva Convention must be upheld: they keep us from descending into barbarism. Blackman has harmed the name of Marines who do their job with distinction and abide by the law.

You Decide

  1. Are there any circumstances in which you would be prepared to kill somebody?
  2. Is killing someone in cold blood always murder?

Activities

  1. Work in fours. Write a list of 10 questions you would ask Sgt Blackman which would reveal as much as possible about his case.
  2. Stay in your groups. Research the answers to your questions. Then write and perform a short role-play of a court case charging Sgt Blackman with murder. Do you find him guilty or not guilty? Explain your decision.

Some People Say...

“There can never be any excuse for killing.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m not planning to join the armed forces. Why does this matter?
You can never be sure what situations you might find yourself in when you are older. Even if you do not face such a moral dilemma, someone you care about might. And if you pay taxes, you will fund your country’s legal system. Perhaps you think your money should not be spent prosecuting soldiers like this. Or perhaps you think the opposite — that it is worthwhile to enforce a clear set of rules.
But I’m not British.
If your country has armed forces, they will represent you. Often they will protect you and help to keep you free. But even if you think your country usually fights for good principles, war often brings out the worst in people. Scandals such as the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US forces in 2004 have shown that.

Word Watch

Malaya
Then a British territory in south-east Asia. Commonwealth armed forces were battling communist guerrillas.
Carbine
A light automatic rifle.
Taliban
A hardline Islamist group which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. It has fought for control in much of the country since then.
Geneva Convention
A series of treaties which outline how prisoners of war should be treated. At his original court martial, Blackman said he thought the man he shot was dead, but the court found this was ‘clearly made up’.
Appealing
Against both his murder conviction and life sentence (with a minimum of 10 years in prison). His case will be heard by a Court Martial Appeals Court.
Backing
More than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for his conviction to be quashed, and an appeal towards his legal fees raised £250,000 in one week.
Part
Helmand Province, a volatile region where British forces were stationed from 2006 to 2014.
Manslaughter
Killing someone in circumstances where it does not amount to murder — usually because it was not deliberate or the perpetrator was not fully responsible.

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