No Prime Minister since Palmerston plunged Britain into so many ‘wars of choice’ as Tony Blair – dirty little conflicts that were unnecessary, immoral and expensive.
His profligacy with servicemen’s lives led cabinet secretaries Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull to conclude he was not “a laudable guardian of the public’s trust”.
He was followed by Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who did little to improve matters.
They undermined every secular Middle Eastern ruler – Mubarak, Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad – who stood between the civilised world and the nightmare of religious extremism. While the three politicos have swanned off to hoover up money elsewhere, 500 servicemen died and more than 2000 were wounded, some hideously maimed, in Afghanistan alone.
Another, Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life by a naval judge who had no experience whatsoever of armed combat.
To widespread relief both inside and outside the military, the Court Martial Appeal Court in London found his murder conviction “manifestly unsafe” and his life sentence a “clear miscarriage of justice”. They ruled the conviction should be “manslaughter on the ground of diminished responsibility”. A further hearing will decide his sentence.
As a tour of duty drew to a close in which 45 Royal Marines were maimed and seven killed (their body parts hung on trees by the Taliban), Blackman led 15 men in a dugout. His command post, Checkpoint (CP) Omar, was described by a documentary as the ‘most dangerous square mile on Earth’, but the MoD legal team played down the danger.
They claimed it was so safe, the padre even visited – a suggestion Padre Nigel Beardsley hotly disputed and it’s clear he was prevented from doing so by senior officers.
Even the colonel visited CP Omar only twice in the six month tour – though he disputed evidence from three psychiatrists that Blackman was suffering from combat stress disorder. The fact is, war is cruel and disorientating and the stress piling on an NCO stuck in little more than a trench should have been predicted.
Another officer did pass on his concerns but he was ignored, so it suited the hierarchy to treat Blackman as a rotten apple rather than a symptom of institutional failure.
In the event the sergeant finished off an almost certainly fatally wounded Taliban fighter – a not uncommon occurrence in the fog of war. He is now – rightly in my opinion as a retired padre – convicted of manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.
But, I have to say as a former naval person, that the term ‘diminished responsibility’ should also be applied to a chain of command which failed to predict morale problems at CP Omar.
John Cameron of St Andrews is a retired minister with doctorates in both science and theology.