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 sentiment...at 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.