The Only Rule of War is Don’t Come Second


From my TCW column:

It has been announced that (ex-Sergeant) Alexander Blackman’s conviction for the murder of an Afghan prisoner of war is to be reconsidered. This is a good decision, but there is a wider question that needs addressing.

The treatment of prisoners of war is governed by the Geneva Conventions, which compel combatants always to accept a surrendering foe and to treat them humanely. British soldiers have this instilled into them. From a military point of view allowing the enemy to surrender makes sense; it is easier, quicker and far less dangerous to accept a surrender than to have to close with and kill a fighting foe. The administrative burden that it creates is usually less than the alternative burden of dealing with the casualties of fighting and replenishing the ammunition that will be consumed.

There are broadly three types of surrender. The first is the soldier who deserts, carefully approaches the opposing troops and makes it clear that he is surrendering. There is little risk to his captors in accepting the surrender. The second, more typical of armoured warfare, is where entire units are outmanoeuvred, find themselves a long way behind enemy lines and have no prospect of achieving any militarily successful outcome by fighting. This happened frequently in the Second World War and, more recently, in the first Gulf War, and the opening parts of the Second one.

The third type, which is what happened to Mr Blackman, is when the surrender happens in combat. The person surrendering has been fighting (or at least part of a group that has been fighting) and is either unwilling or unable to fight on. The captor has also been fighting. He has been, and probably still is, in mortal peril. He is in a killing frame of mind.

This frame of mind is created by military training; indeed, it is a fundamental part of it. Soldiers are conditioned into being able to kill at close quarters, which requires them to repeatedly put their life at risk. This is particularly true of infantrymen (Mr Blackman was a Marine, a superior form of infantry). An infantryman is very safe when he is lying on his belly in cover. Every time he gets up to move he enters mortal peril. After his move – perhaps five metres – he’s safe again on his belly. Then he repeats the process. And again. And again. Add to the fear, the exhaustion, the anger and you can see that the average infantryman in combat is very different from the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, or even his normal self. The infantryman in combat cannot be relied upon to be rational.

Failing to accept surrenders is not unknown in British or American military history. In the savage fighting around Caen in 1944, and again in the Ardennes, there were many cases of German surrenders not being excepted and of prisoners being shot. No action was taken. In Stalingrad, the same was true of German and Russian soldiers.

Mr Blackman’s conviction for murder is the product of an attempt to sanitise war. It was wrong at the time and the process that led to the trial is flawed. (Note that this does not exonerate Mr Blackman. Accepting surrenders makes sense and his orders were to accept them. He broke the order; while an infantry soldier in combat may not be rational he is expected to be disciplined and obey orders. Mr Blackman failed that test, but that does not warrant a life sentence).

The law needs to be changed to reflect the realities of the battlefield. While we’re at it, we should also reconsider how we view collateral damage and the killing of civilians. The British have form here too – not only the bombing of German cities like Dresden but more recently the civilians killed in Serbia and the Gulf.

We need to drop the pretence that we conduct war in a civilised manner – there is no such thing as a civilised war. The fundamental law of armed conflict is don’t lose. Mr Blackman should be freed and the law should be adjusted to reflect reality rather than providing a moral fig leaf to society.