Friday, February 03, 2006

Breaker Morant

I wanted to address a question from this evening's film that I felt got somewhat short shrift during the conversation. Farley posed to us as a group the query as to whether or not we should "feel bad" for Morant and Hancock after their execution. The gut reaction of most seems to have been that we should, but I think it's a more complicated issue. Morant, until the death and mutilation of his friend Hunt, had never shot a Boer prisoner. Whittington, the younger Australian soldier--if I'm getting his name right, even comments to the effect that Morant never obeys an order with which he does not agree, and Morant admits that he's seeking vengeance for the death of his friend.

The defense counsel, in his closing, contends that such wars sometimes require actions that are not Christian, that are barbarous and that cannot be judged by civilian mores, which is why Morant deserves leniency. I'm not comfortable with that all. We develop international taboos in war that encourage restraint for a reason. The international community does not condone needless violence, even in a war context. However, such ideals are harder to stand by in when dealing with an enemy who does not abide by the same rules, and when the enemy escalates the violence--the symbolic mutilation of Hunt, Morant's fall from Grace becomes more understandable. He's driven to it by the ugliness of the situation, but Hancock doesn't quite have the same excuse. He is clearly less interested in the difference between right and wrong than in mere survival. For him, killing the prisoners is more about making certain that there is one less Boer to put a dum-dum through his skull. Even so, that, too, is an understandable impulse. Who really wants to die?

Regardless of how understandable those impulses are, such actions cannot be condoned. They undermine the signals the British are trying to communicate to the Boers by making surrender an untenable option. Schelling would likely agree that encouraging surrender is the goal of such violence and that killing all Boer prisoners is a disincentive for the Boers to stop fighting. Furthermore, they cut at the veneer of civility that is so important to bringing people to the negotiating table. After all, who wants to negotiate with a madman?

I understand why Morant and Hancock had to be punished, but I dislike the fact that the British army was more than willing to institute a policy of automatic execution (or at least allegedly so) and then sacrifice two soldiers who were following that order. In the abstract, at least, the British government sold Morant and Hancock up the creek for a policy that was generally well known among the soldiers. What kind of message does that level of violence send? My immediate question was "how can the British expect their soldiers to perform in light of these events." They used these two men to show the Boers the impartiality of English justice but at the same time showed other soldiers that they were more than willing to execute their own soldiers for following orders and policy established by Britain.

How can a state like that hope to maintain an empire? I'm not certain, but it's certainly a disturbing message.


Cavour said...

The Buckveldt Carbiniers were a special unit detached from other British Army units. It may have been that the "no prisoners" order was only for units like them. I don't remember this well, so I could be wrong.

As for the rightness or wrongness of the verdict...

Morant and Hancock certainly deserved their punishment. Morant's behavior made it clear he was less interested in orders and more interested in vengeance when he ordered the execution of the prisoners. Their behavior towards the missionary was nothing short of cold-blooded murder. However, the way the court went about it was horrifyingly unfair.

Meow said...

I agree, Mach. Morant knew the order to be wrong until the mutilation of his friend set him off. However, saying that the way the British government went about it was "unfair" is somehow disingenuous.

Notwithstanding the "wrongness" of their actions, Morant and Hancock were still following orders when they shot the Boer prisoners. Remember that they were acquitted in the death of the missionary, meaning that they were executed for the Boer prisoners' deaths.

What I'm saying is that the state was willing to countenance a policy and then sacrifice its soldiers "to apologize for their war". That's not a variety of governance that I can countenance.

Does that make a bit more sense? The prompting post was one I wrote around 2 am and could have been somewhat lacking in cohesion.

Cavour said...

Well, to be fair, mine was written first thing in the morning, so we're probably even. As for saying the court's methods were unfair, I wouldn't call it disingenuous. One can approve of an end (punishment for murder) without approving of the means (a rigged trial).

As for the acquittal of the missionary's murder, I don't remember that; I thought they were convicted on all three charges. However, it's a minor point and not really worth further ado.

As for the soldiers being sacrificed...sad as it is, it probably happens quite frequently.

Soldiers, diplomats, and civil servants are sometimes sacrificed on the altar of "political necessity". It doesn't make it right, but I doubt there's a government in the world today that wouldn't behave the same the British did. Their (undeniably callous) attitude would probably be, "Life's not fair. Nothing we can do about it." Government policy is based more on expediency than morality.

Meow said...

Actually, I don't think that we should discount the acquittal on the charge of murdering the missionary. That's actually fairly significant because it was the one issue upon which the legal trial could stand. As for the Boer prisoners, once it was established that Hunt had given them standing orders to kill prisoners, the court lacked standing to pursue the matter.

The German missionary was the whole reason the court martial took place, as the English feared interference in the war by the Germans on behalf of the Dutch. Once the German missionary was killed, the Germans lodged a formal complaint, meaning that England had to find a way both to save face internationally and placate the Kaiser.

The fact that they were acquitted of killing the German is interesting. After that point, executing the soldiers serves comparatively little purpose unless it is to communicate to the Boers a message about the impartiality of English justice as was suggested--though I'm not certain that would have been an effective message. Alternatively, the English could be sending a message that they don't encourage such conduct--internationally, in which case it's an effective message. I'm still working through that one in my mind, however.

Finally, I'm also not going to let the British government off the hook. A lot of the movie's dialogue centers around believing in the Empire--Whittington is the only one who does, note. The message one seems to take away from this is that the whole business is nasty, both the war and the Empire. The Empire is willing to sacrifice a couple of Aussie's for the greater good, which is why the intelligence officer is spared, even promoted eventually, and that destroys its credibility in the eyes of the Australians involved. There's a cost there--one that will eventually bring down the empire.

Cavour said...

"A lot of the movie's dialogue centers around believing in the Empire--Whittington is the only one who does, note. The message one seems to take away from this is that the whole business is nasty, both the war and the Empire."

I agree. For me, the movie's message was one of disillusionment. For all the talk of "helping", empires are fundamentally selfish enterprises. Empires are about power and wealth for the empire-builder, not those buried in its foundation. More than anything else, this was a reality check for real-life supporters of empire.

"The Empire is willing to sacrifice a couple of Aussies for the greater good....There's a cost there--one that will eventually bring down the empire."

To an extent, I suppose I agree. Empires always fall. After a while, people stop believing the lies they're built on and accept reality. I think Breaker Morant was a snapshot of a time when people were starting to question the lies necessary for empire. More accurately (given that this was a re-enactment), I think it's a movie made by those who've stopped believing in empire and are now trying to convince others to stop believing in it as well.

Meow said...

Yep, this is a re-enactment, but most of the dialogue during the court sequences was taken from the transcripts of the actual trial.

The pressures rolling below the surface are plain from the transcripts.

I do concede that the filmmaker doesn't believe in Empires, but I'm reasonably willing to accept that anyone party to that mess wasn't feeling too charitable to Her Majesty's memory. Possibly the saddest sequence in the whole film is the three cheers for George the Seventh. (I think it was number 7...) It was damned perfunctory.

Anywhoo, I'm not going to fight you on the lies necessary to the maintenance of the empire. It's late, and I'm tired.