‘This mortal coil’: Hamlet in Helmand

This week Sgt Alexander Blackman, late of the Royal Marines, publishes his memoir Marine A (Mirror Books, 2019). Blackman achieved notoriety as the soldier who fired a bullet into the body of his Taliban captive while quoting Hamlet. He was the first British soldier to be convicted of murder on a foreign battlefield. Read here about the deeper links between Marine A’s experience and Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet, in an extract from an article ‘Hamlet in Helmand’ by Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey. The full article is published in Critical Insights: Hamlet, edited by Robert C. Evans (NY: Salem Press, 2019).

Image: Robert F. Carter

Hamlet in Helmand: Wild Justice (EXTRACT)

Graham Holderness and Bryan Loughrey

“Shuffle off this mortal coil you c***.

It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”[1]

This is a quotation from the recorded speech of Sergeant Alexander Blackman of the British Royal Marines as he fired a bullet into the body of a captured Afghan insurgent in Helmand Province in September 2011.

Inside that quotation lies another much more familiar quotation, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil

Must give us pause. (3.1.67-9)

Sgt Blackman was identified not as a soldier who killed his prisoner, but as a soldier who quoted Shakespeare while doing so.

In September 2011 Sgt Blackman was on patrol in Helmand Province with 42 Commando Royal Marines, and came across a Taliban insurgent who, in the course of attacking a British forward post, had been mortally wounded by an Apache helicopter. MP Richard Drax, introducing a Parliamentary Debate in 16 September 2015, said:

Sergeant Blackman and his patrol were directed to an insurgent who had been fatally wounded by gunfire from an Apache helicopter. Horribly exposed in a known hotspot for enemy activity, they knew that other insurgents were in the area. They dragged the fatally wounded man to cover.[2] 

The Apache is equipped with the M230 chain gun, which fires six-hundred-and-twenty-five 30 mm rounds, each capable of piercing an armoured vehicle, a minute. Blackman and his comrades pulled the fatally wounded (or dead) man out of sight of a surveillance balloon. The whole operation was filmed via a helmet camera worn by one of the Marines who accompanied Sgt Blackman. The audio component of the video recording (the former was publicly released in 2013, the latter in 2017), shows clearly that the Marines debated whether or not to administer first aid, and tried to keep their actions shielded from the sight and surveillance of other army personnel. They also show that Blackman shot the insurgent with a 9mm pistol, admitted that he had “just broke the Geneva Convention”, and enjoined secrecy on his comrades – “obviously this doesn’t go anywhere, fellas.”

A year later, five Marines were charged with murder. Charges were dropped against two, and proceeded with against three, including Blackman. A court-martial found Blackman alone guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment (minimum ten years) and discharged in disgrace from the Marines. He lost his appeal, though his sentence was reduced from ten years to eight. He was the first British serviceman to be convicted of the murder of an enemy combatant on a foreign battlefield.

Following Blackman’s conviction, support for the Marine sprang up from various quarters, both within the military and the general public, producing a press campaign, social media support groups and petitions to have him released, or his sentence reduced. In 2017 Blackman’s conviction was reduced from murder to manslaughter with diminished responsibility, the “disgrace” stigma was removed from his dismissal, and he was released from prison.   

There are two interpretations of this complex and difficult case. The court-martial convicted Blackman of murder, a verdict supported by senior military officers, the court-martial judicial system, the Ministry of Defence, and implicitly the House of Commons. Within this perspective Blackman acted both illegally and dishonourably, since it was his duty under the Geneva Convention to protect the wounded prisoner.  

The opposing argument, which is one of mitigation rather than defence, was the basis for the campaign of public support for Blackman. At his trial Blackman admitted that he had shot the man, but claimed that he believed him to be already dead. In the audio recording, several of the soldiers offer the opinion that he was already dead, supporting Blackman’s contention. He had tried to take out his anger on a corpse, he claimed, and felt deeply ashamed of his actions.  

There is however a third way of interpreting this incident, via the Shakespeare play alluded to in Blackman’s battlefield citation. The context of the quotation is of course Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the prince’s meditations on suicide. Hamlet, however, is not a play about eschatology, but a play about revenge and justice: in particular about whether they can ever be the same thing. We can infer that this aspect of Hamlet was very much in Sgt Blackman’s mind from his subsequent remark, addressed to the dead or dying prisoner: “It’s nothing you wouldn’t do to us.”

This follow-up remark is not of course a quotation from Shakespeare, but it certainly operates as a citation, by irresistibly invoking Hamlet’s prior justification, confided to Horatio, for killing Claudius:

Does it not, think’st thee, stand me now upon
He that hath killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage – is’t not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm? And is’t not to be damned
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil? (5.2.64-71)

Horatio implicitly agrees: “Why, what a king is this!” In the same vein one of Sgt Blackman’s comrades endorses the validity of his talionic assertion – “It’s nothing more than you would do to us” – with the laconic “I know.”

Nothing you wouldn’t do to us. “In Afghanistan”, observed Richard Drax in the Parliamentary Debate, “the enemy were clever, motivated, difficult to identify, ruthless and cruel. Torture and death faced those who fell into their hands”. (Hansard Column 339WH)  Hamlet’s list of charges against Claudius amounts to an insistent protestation that in this case revenge and justice are perfectly aligned: “is’t not perfect conscience / To quit him?” (5.2.70) The Royal Marines might well have been engaged in a very similar effort of self-justification.

“Revenge,” wrote Francis Bacon, “is a kind of wild justice.” (Bacon 9). Revenge is no more a part of the modern judicial system than it was in Shakespeare’s day. But it remains, over 2000 years after the Sermon on the Mount, an obstinately enduring element of popular culture.

Hamlet is sent by his father’s ghost on a mission of revenge; but he interprets it as one of justice. Most analysts of the play have agreed with him. Sgt Blackman was also sent, it could be argued, by his political leaders, on a mission of revenge, for the atrocity of 9/11. The 2001 invasion by the Anglo-American coalition was triggered by the Taliban government’s refusal to surrender Osama Bin Laden and other terrorists, and expel Al-Qaeda from their territory. The coalition was joined in due course by NATO and United Nations forces. But notwithstanding the political motivation of the war, in common with all other military personnel involved in this campaign, Sgt Blackman was expected to operate within the parameters of British and international justice. As Colonel Bob Stewart, former UN Commander in Bosnia, said in the Parliamentary Debate:

… the law is clear. Servicemen and women have a duty and a right to kill the enemy, until that enemy comes under their control—de facto, a prisoner. Once the enemy is under control, they have a responsibility to care for that person. In this case, clearly, Marine A did wrong by killing, or assuming he was killing, someone. That is against the law of armed conflict and the Geneva convention. (Hansard Column 355WH)

There was no space then within this sphere of responsibility for the kind of “wild justice” permissible in Hamlet, and indeed advocated by the revenge-based plot of thousands of popular films.

Filming the event via a helmet-mounted camera made it a form of theatre. Quoting Shakespeare inside such a theatrical environment renders the action a kind of performance. Clearly the Marine who did the filming never expected his little play to gain an audience; rather it was staged for his own private satisfaction. But once the film was released – fully in audio and partially in video – it became nothing less than a revenge tragedy played out among the cornfields of Helmand.

In legal terms, the distinction between drama and real life is absolute. In real life you cannot “poison in jest” (3.2.220): murder is murder. In the initial trial, according to the army, the courts and the MOD, Sgt Blackman murdered a man he should have saved. To Blackman’s supporters, a soldier who had been pushed beyond the limit by the terrible circumstances into which we ordered him made a vindictive but justifiable error of judgement. They stood on the principle that on occasion that which belongs inside the theatre may, even should, be permitted to operate outside it. In the event the law was found to concur with this principle of poetic justice.

Works Cited

Bacon, Francis. “Revenge”. The Essays of Francis Bacon. London: George Sawbridge, 1696.

House of Commons Hansard, 16 September 2015. [Available at] https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2015-09-16/debates/15091640000001/SgtAlexanderBlackman(MarineA) [Accessed 20 September 2018)

[1] From transcript of the ‘Helmand Province Incident’ audio recording, published by The Guardian, 25 October 2013. [Available at]  https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/oct/25/royal-marines-court-martial-video-transcript [Accessed 20 September 2018]. The video recording was released in 2017 and is accessible on Youtube. [Available at] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKxCZxPmvN8 [Accessed 20 September 2018].

[2] Richard Drax, MP. House of Commons Hansard, 16 September 2015. Column 339WH.

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