The Lonely Centrist

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Friday, August 19, 2005

Friday Night Video: Breaker Morant and Iraq

At the turn of the last century, the British empire was embroiled in a nasty war in South Africa, the Boer War. The Boer War began in 1899, but its roots extended far back.

Dutch settlers had first landed in South Africa in 1652, and for generations maintained a small colony on the coast. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, some 30,000 settlers, largely Dutch but also German and French, lived around the Cape. This colony, however, fell under British sway as spoils of Napoleon's defeat, and in 1820 5000 British settlers landed at Cape Colony. The British population grew rapidly, and in the 1830s about 5000 Dutch settlers, taking black slaves with them, migrated inland to escape British rule - these were the Voortrekkers memorialized in Michener's historical novel, "The Covenant." They established two small colonies, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, in the northern interior, while the British populated the coastal colonies of Cape Colony and Natal.

This division of South Africa lasted until the 1870s. In 1872, however, Diamonds were discovered near Kimberley, and in 1877 the British attempted to take over the Transvaal. (These rich diamond minds - think DeBeers - are still the source of most of the world's gem grade diamonds). The Dutch settlers - known as "Boers" - rebeled, ambushed and wiped out the main British military force (only a couple hundred men), and then surrounded and humiliated the British relief force at the battle of Majuba Hill. The British pulled out, leaving Transvaal to the Boers for the time being. The Boers, understandably, looked for alliances with other powers - notably Germany - and used their diamond money to build powerful forts along their borders and create a nation bristling with Mauser rifles for defense. In 1886, gold was discovered in the Transvaal. British, American, and European prospectors and entrepreneurs flooed the Transvaal, whose wealth continued to grow. The Boers, however, refused to share political power with these new settlers to their land. (Of course blacks, the overwhelming majority of the population, were totally excluded from power). Finally, in 1895 British diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, he of the famous Scholarship, sponsored a private invasion of the Transvaal, known as Jameson's Raid. The Boers crushed it, but in response the British government began to get more involved. Finally, the British made plain their intention to take over, by force if necessary, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Their backs to the wall, the Afrikaaner Republics declared war in October, 1899.

To the great surprise of the British, the Boers had not only refused to buckle under British threats, but on the declaration of war, they launched a major offensive into South Africa, routing British forces in the area, laying seige to Ladysmith, Kimberley, and Mafeking, and threatening the great port of Durban. (It was during this phase of the war that young Winston Churchill was taken prisoner, escaped, and began writing dispatches that would add greatly to his fame. And it was at the seige of Mafeking that Baden-Powell, later founder of the Boy Scouts, first gained worldwide reknown. Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle also served as journalists in the Boer War, with Conan Doyle writing a book, "The Great Boer War.") But despite the Boers early success, they were simply no match for the British. The entire Boer population in the two Republics was a bit over 200,000, of whom approximately 50,000 were men of military age - the British would eventually send 450,000 troops to subdue them. By mid-1900 the British had captured Bloemfontaine and Johannesburg, the capitals of, respectively, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. Both were declared British colonies and the war seemed over.

Then began the guerilla war. Boer guerillas, led by Louis Botha, Christiaan de Wet, J.H. de la Rey, and future South African President and Churchill confidante J.C. Smuts, began harassing British units, capturing supplies, and inflicting substantial casualties on the occupiers. The British response was savage. Under the leadership of Lord Kirchener, the British burned over 30,000 Boer farms in an effort to deny the guerillas sustenance. Over 100,000 Boer civilians were interned in over a dozen concentration camps, and over 25,000, mainly women and children, would eventually die of disease and malnutrition in the camps. It was this horrible stage of the war that led to the great speech by the Liberal leader Campbell-Bannerman. Rising in Parliament, he noted that the government denied that there was any longer a war taking place in South Africa. To which he then asked, "when is a war not a war? When it is carried on by methods of barbarism is South Africa."

Early in the guerilla war the British, in their bright red jackets and tight formations, were easy prey for the Boer units. Eventually, the British began to form units of what we might now call "special forces." One such unit was the Bushveldt Carbineers. They were outfitted in plain khaki and broad rimmed hats, and mounted for rapid movement. They relied on intelligence gleaned from the local population and captured enemy combatants to roust the guerillas out of their hiding places and the farms to which they dispersed after action.

It is this climate that is the setting for the true story of Breaker Morant. Morant is a rather dashing Australian, a lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers. His nickname comes from his skill at breaking horses, but he recites Byron at length and sings to his love in a beautiful tenor. During action in the Veldt, faulty intelligence, probably provided on purpose by a double agent, leads the Carbineers into an ambush. Their beloved Captain Taylor is killed in the encounter, and an enraged Morant, assuming command, summarily executes a Boer prisoner of war in revenge. It may be worth noting that the Carbineers, as a light, fast, mounted unit that lived off the land, had little capacity to take POWs and - more importantly - it would be alleged by Morant and his subordinates at trial that the Carbineers had direct orders - unwritten - from General Kirchener's headquarters to "take no prisoners."

Morant and two junior lieutenants are then brought up on charges or war crimes, and Major J.F. Thomas is assigned to their defense. But the fix is in. Kirchener is obviously not going to admit that orders were given to "take no prisoners." Furthermore, given the growing public outcry about British atrocities in the war, it is necessary to take firm action here. Although all three defendants are Australian nationals, Australian officials decide to support the British - the nation has only just been granted Dominion status, and they are eager to prove that they are not a backwards nation of descendants of theives. Showing their concern for war crimes by prosecuting Morant is a helpful cover. Nevertheless, the idealistic Major Thomas puts up a surprisingly spunky defense, and the military judges, who understand why they have been assigned the case, are nonetheless forced to concede many procedural points in Thomas's (and of course Morant's) favor as the trial moves along. In the end, it is of course for naught. One of Morant's co-defendants, Lt. George Witten, avoided the death penalty - mainly because of his youth - and would eventually would write a book (on which the movie is largely based) called "Scapegoats of the Empire." Thanks to the movie, it has been re-released in recent years in paperback and can be found at Amazon.

This movie bears all the hallmarks of the great Australian director Bruce Beresford ("Driving Miss Daisy," "Tender Mercies," "The Black Robe"). A strong story masterfully told with flashbacks that are never confusing, excellent camera work, fine pacing. The courtroom scenes are superb, among the best ever done, certainly the best military trial ever on screen. Most of all, Beresford has a real knack for bringing out the best in actors, and Edward Woodward's portrayal of Morant is a sublime masterpiece. A slight tremor in his hand as smokes a cigarette, a slightly ironic grin, a small twitch in the corner of his eye, a catch in his voice - these small, subtle gestures mark the strain under which Morant is functioning, first in the field and then in court. His recognition of the futility of their defense - which Major Thomas simply cannot accept - and his appreciation of Thomas's doomed efforts make for one of the best, most subtle interpersonal relationships ever put to film.

It seems to me that Breaker Morant gives us lots to think about in this day and age. The simple cant on the Democratic Underground would see an easy Iraq allegory, a Michael Moore script: ruthless empire invades peaceful rural backwater in quest for underground riches; targets innocent civilians; commits atrocities, and deserts its soldiers. Of course, in reality there are few similarities of that type - the U.S. did not invade Iraq for oil (we coulda lifted the embargo and bought it anytime); and we are not targeting civilians, randomly burning farms, or herding the populace into concentration camps.

But - "Breaker Morant" reminds us of what can happen in this type of war, when the ability to get intelligence from the enemy is often the difference between life and death; when the enemy is shadowy and hard to identify or locate; when frustration builds from the inability of a great power to put down an insurgency, and when one's comrades are not felled in head to head combat but by murky ambush from the shadows. It is easy to be sucked into the morass, and to lose one's own moral bearings. Abu Grab is not a concentration camp, but there has been at least some mistreatment of internees. We do need to punish soldiers who step over the lines. But we must not let them become scapegoats, roasted and convicted in the press without a fair trial. War produces many moral ambiguities, and the Boer War, or today's Iraq war, are no exceptions. It is important to think about how far we are willing to go - what steps we are willing to take - to win this war.

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