Feb 272016
 

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On this date in 1902 Australian lieutenant Harry “Breaker” Morant (along with his comrade in arms, Peter Handcock) was executed by firing squad by the British army after being convicted for murder during the 2nd Boer War. Morant, and Handcock, along with lieutenants George Witton, Henry Picton, Captain Alfred Taylor and Major Robert Lenehan – of the Bushveldt Carbineers (BVC), an irregular British force active during the Boer War – were all brought up on charges of murder which were, in part, prompted by a “letter of complaint” signed by James Christie and 14 other members of the BVC, stating that lieutenant Morant had incited the co-accused to murder about 20 people, including the Boer commando Visser, a group of eight Boer prisoners of war, Boer civilian adults and children, and a German missionary named Heese. Morant and Handcock were acquitted of killing Heese, but were sentenced to death on the other two charges and executed within 18 hours of sentencing. Their death warrants were personally signed by Lord Kitchener (before the verdicts were read).

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It was not until 1907 that news of the trial and executions was made public in Australia when Witton published Scapegoats of the Empire. The Australian government ensured that none of its troops would be tried by the British military during World War I, but by then Australia was a nation, whereas during the Boer Wars Australia was a series of colonies which came directly under British rule. The official court records have never been found, prompting accusations of a British cover up.

Conflicting opinions continue to swirl around the trial and execution, not least because of interest aroused by continued publications, and the release of the 1980 film Breaker Morant. The facts of the matter have never been in dispute, and were never denied at the trial. Morant had ordered the summary executions of Visser and 8 prisoners of war. Controversy continues concerning the reasons for the trials of these men at this time. As one of the characters notes in the movie, the Boer War was “a new kind of war for a new century” – what we now call “total war” and what became normative in the 20th century.

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Total war, which, it can be argued, started with the Boer War, involves such tactics as the lack of differentiation between combatants and non-combatants since opposing sides can consider nearly every human resource, even that of non-combatants, as part of the war effort. Thus, civilians and other non-combatants and their resources can become “legitimate” targets of war – evidenced by the carpet bombing of industrial cities, such as Coventry and Dresden in World War II, or the use of nuclear weapons in Japan, in which large numbers of civilian men, women, and children died. Total war can also involve commands to take no prisoners as a tactic.

Let me be quite clear on my moral stance before exploring the complexities and differing opinions on this case. I am utterly opposed to violence on any grounds. I am a confirmed pacifist and cannot be moved from that position. So, in examining the various viewpoints concerning the trial and execution of Morant I begin from the stance that war under any circumstances is morally wrong and, therefore, ALL acts of war are atrocities by definition, and cannot be condoned. That said, it’s possible to examine the arguments on all sides in Morant’s case.

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Bruce Beresford, director of Breaker Morant has made it very clear what his motives were in making the movie:

The film never pretended for a moment that they weren’t guilty. It said they are guilty. But what was interesting about it was that