Marine A contravened the Geneva Convention, yet so few people in authority truly understand what war can do to a person
The sentencing of Sgt Alexander Blackman, aka Marine A, has focused attention on the way the criminal-justice system and courts-martial process deal with serving and former members of the Armed Forces. There is no doubt that Sgt Blackman’s actions directly contravened the Geneva Convention – and given that what makes us different from our enemies is that we have rules, and follow them, it’s right that he faced the consequences.
That said, swathes of the public have expressed concern at the outcome. And the case has highlighted a broader issue – namely, that while the military system that tried Blackman is configured to understand the impact conflict can have, the civilian justice system is not.
Those who witness the horrors of war are all, to a greater or lesser extent, affected. Occasionally, this manifests itself in criminal behaviour. In order to deal with that, we must address the causes.
Through the ages, soldiers returning home have coped in different ways. After the First World War, many who were in the trenches never spoke about it – that was the way they dealt with it. As my colour sergeant said to me at Sandhurst: “You just put the war in your coping strategy box, and open it only when or if you need to.”
Though we might not all agree with sending the troops in the first place, we do believe they should be properly looked after on their return. On this front, we have much to learn from the US, which is leagues ahead in every aspect of veteran care, including rehabilitation and legal representation. That said, we’re getting better at it – not only in terms of public respect, but also with practical measures to ease the transition into civilian life, such as access to employment, housing, health care and education.
But one area where further progress can be made is in the law. Let’s be honest: it’s not straightforward what actually constitutes a veteran. The recruit who dropped out of basic training after three weeks should not attract the same support as the soldier who served for 25 years and deployed on seven operational tours.
For some veterans, their wrongdoing may not be linked to their experiences. But where someone has served in the Armed Forces – where they’ve been exposed to danger – it should be recognised. If they have been materially affected, and that’s been a factor in their behaviour, then this should be properly considered by the judicial system. This is not about letting criminals off lightly. Where people fall short, there must be consequences. What I am proposing is not instead of punishment, but in addition to. It’s designed to help address the factors that led to the criminality in the first place.
So, when the House of Commons returns, I will table two amendments to the Offender Rehabilitation Bill – common-sense measures that I hope will attract cross-party support. The first calls on the Government to consult over how to improve rehabilitation services for veterans who have been convicted of an offence. This is a simple request that ministers should surely find hard to disagree with. The second calls on the Justice Secretary to establish a pilot scheme enabling courts to include a “veterans’ rehabilitation requirement” in a community order. It’s small beer, really, designed to address the causes of the criminal act and prevent reoffending.
I am tabling the amendments because I am not convinced that our justice system always fully understands the impact that operational service can have on individuals. Indeed, how could it, when so few people in authority truly understand what war can do to a person?
The intensity of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been severe. We now have many people who, as it was described to me recently, “have seen some pretty serious s---”. Most will be fine. Some won’t. For those who aren’t, we need to accept a lifelong obligation to support them, across every aspect of their rehabilitation. So I hope my colleagues of all parties will get behind these amendments, and that the Government will do the right thing. Those who have served us deserve nothing less.
This article was first published in the Sunday Telegraph on 5 January 2014.