"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Empire Strikes Out

I've immensley enjoyed Don McClarey's posts over at American Catholic. He is a great amatuer historian of the Civil War and a fan of military history in general; and a co-laborer in the legal trenches to boot. I thought of him as I prepared this post, because I've always enjoyed the way he weaves history with pertinent film clips.

So after winning a particularly difficult robbery case yesterday, I felt the perverse need to relax by watching "Breaker Morant," a too-little known Australian gem from 1980. I've never found a clean copy of it; I'm happy that Netflix now has it among their titles, and it's a greatly improved version with cuts restored and excellent sound and picture quality.

The movie generally tracks the true story of Australian Breaker Morant and two of his colleagues, members of an elite British unit during the Boer War of 1899-1902 (see here for a quick but fair synopsis of the war). This unit, the Bushveldt Carbineers, was tasked with going out into the bush and fighting the Boers in the same guerilla fashion in which they had begun to fight the English. The three men are put on trial for their actions fighting the Boers, and for the killing of a German "missionary."

The movie is a fascinating and very timely tale of how a civilized army deals with fighting a foe that does not follow the laws of war. It's also a morality tale of the peril of empire, with the Australian defendants being tried for crimes committed while fighting a war of subjugation in South Africa for their "mother country:"

Not only is this an excellent war movie, it is in my view really a great courtroom drama, as the accused contend against an English military court that seems determined to make an example of them:

The Australians' defense counsel is also a "colonial," and despite having little trial experience, is tasked with trying to save the lives of his three clients, who the English want to sacrifice in order to appease the Germans, who are looking for a pretext to enter the war on the side of the Boers. His development as a vigorous advocate for his clients is wonderful to watch.

The Morant case became legendary in Australia, particularly when coupled in the popular imagination with the debacle some ten years or so afterwards at Gallipoli, where Australian and New Zealand units serving under the British were butchered by an ill-conceived offensive during the First World War (Lord Kitchener, ironically, had a hand in both Morant's case and in the Gallipoli campaign). Another Australian film highlights the reckless stupidity of the British in that campaign.

Recent attempts to gain a posthumous pardon for Morant and his comrades have been unsurprisingly rebuffed by the Britain.


Donald R. McClarey said...

That was a great film Tom! The Aussies still remember that incident. It is also an interesting example of how historical truth can be difficult to find. The Wikapedia article linked below gives a good taste of the controversies which have raged since the execution:


Great post!

Andries said...

People need to research Breaker Morant a bit before singing his praises. He participated in and incited the murder of civilians and children. Some of his victims, like Chris Van Staden was only 12 years old. The Van Staden family were sent from Elim hospital to the British military camp to seek permission to receive medical treatment for Chris who was dying of malaria. Read Arthur Davey's book "Breaker Morant and the Bushveldt Carbineers" it was published in 1987. Harry Morant was a POM he was not an Australian, he refered to himself as a British officer and indicated that he was "English" when he entered the goal before his execution. Major Thomas wrote a scathing letter to indicate Morant was a Brit when someone claimed he was Australian.

Tom McKenna said...

Interesting points. Even the "sanatized" Morant is depicted as committing what we would consider war crimes; i.e., summary executions, killing civilians with no process at all.

The point is that empires tend to roll over the people who do their dirty work. The Brits have been front and center in that process, which is one reason the Aussies fixed on Morant as a symbol of what was wrong with their involvement with empire-maintenance.