Last week in the UK there was a landmark conviction of a British soldier who, in the company of his fellow marines, shot dead a wounded Taliban militant in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan, instead of calling in a medical team to save the militant– in other words ‘finished him off,’ in military parlance. The decision, by a military court in Wiltshire, is highly significant as it is the first time, in modern times, that a British soldier has been found guilty of murder on a foreign battlefield and given such a sentence: Marine A, as he is known, has been sentenced to life imprisonment. And it is the first time in over two decades that a British serviceman has been convicted of the murder of anyone in a conflict.

The decision thus has interesting implications for us in Ireland, since one of the extraordinary features of the long running Northern Ireland conflict was that despite the long period of British soldiering, in often very difficult and controversial circumstances, not a single British soldier ever did significant time for committing a killing, such as those of Marine A. Lee Clegg was convicted of the murder of joyriders, but subsequently released- and promoted. And two soldiers who killed Peter McBride in Belfast in 1992, who was shot while running away from an army patrol, were controversially released after a few years. And no one served any time for the Bloody Sunday killings of 1972.

So this is a new departure. But is it a wise one? Already there have been many calls for clemency for Marine A and it would be hard to disagree that a life sentence is way too long for a killing of this sort, in a war zone, under very difficult conditions and against a Taliban enemy that is ruthless and takes no prisoners. Regardless of what one thinks of the Afghanistan war, there is a serious context for these conflict killings.

The wounded Taliban militant had just been involved in a violent attack on British soldiers, as they did and do every day in this Helmand area. The Taliban are not keen to take prisoners themselves and are known to drape British soldier’s body parts from trees to taunt and goad their enemy.

There is no doubt that Marine A was wrong in this situation, and lost the self-control and restraint that he is supposed to show, as a soldier, and is trained for. But it is hardly premeditated murder. Ironically, his actions were also uncovered during a separate investigation by the military authorities. They stumbled upon a film of the event saved on another marine’s lap top : the film was footage taken from the cameras now embedded on the helmets of patrolling Marines. Without such cameras, we can assume that many other atrocities similar to this one go unrecorded and thus not convicted for.

The decision by the UK military court also begs the question as to whether those who carry out drone strikes, from a far off control room, are not even more guilty in blindly killing civilians as collateral in their ‘strikes on militants’, the so-called extra judicial killings of which President Obama has been a great enthusiast?  Is it, as usual, one law for the grunt soldier on the ground, facing danger, injury and death, and another law (of immunity) for the unknown suited killer in the faraway control room, with his finger on a button?

The clearing of Lee Clegg: