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Canadian soldier kills Taliban fighter

January 2009
Regarding, Joe Warmington’s column, Canadian Soldier Kills Taliban (3 January 2009), I would like to add that although we don’t know exactly what happened, this could be a case of history repeating itself. Anyone not familiar with the story of Lt. Harry “Breaker” Morant, a veteran of the South Africa (Boer) War, should either rent the movie “Breaker Morant” (1980) or read the book “Scapegoats of the Empire” by Lt. George Witton.

The book and movie detail the controversial 1902 court-martial of Morant, Witton and Lt. Peter Handcock for the murder of 7 Boer prisoners and a German Missionary. All three were members of a specially formed regiment, the Bushveldt Carbineers, whose job it was to fight the Boers Commandos on their terms; in other words, using the same commando tactics the Boers were using. Some of the Boer guerrilla tactics included quick, sneak-attack style raids, wearing ordinary civilian attire instead of uniforms, masquerading as British soldiers by wearing uniforms stolen from British troops, and shooting at British troops from farmhouses and other areas where non-combatants lay (with some women and children even doing the shooting).

Does any of this sound familiar to the current mission in Afghanistan? At least the Boer Commandos had the decency to attack in person, rather than leave a bomb miles behind them for enemy troops to trod upon.

The men’s defence attorney, Major J.F. Thomas, made it perfectly clear at their trial that it is near-impossible to fairly judge men for their behaviour under the circumstances of war, where conventional norms do not apply. This is especially true in the current Afghanistan War, which is the most unconventional war Canada has fought. That is not to condone outright murder, but it can sometimes be difficult to define killing an enemy combatant as murder and that is why we have to be careful about denouncing the actions of soldiers in the field as murder.

My point is the book/movie make it perfectly clear that it is near-impossible to fairly judge men for their behaviour under the circumstances of war, where conventional norms do not apply, such as in Afghanistan.

Harry Morant is quoted as having said in response to why he had the prisoners shot, that besides having received orders from his now deceased Commanding Officer that they were to take no prisoners, “It is customary in war to kill as many of the enemy as possible. We shot them under Rule 303 (in reference to the .303 Lee-Enfield rifles that British troops carried). That is not to condone outright murder, but as Warmington states, “Hopefully those investigators are working as hard at finding out who killed our nine guys with IEDs in December”.

For those interested, Morant and Handcock were both found guilty and executed. Witton was also convicted but sentanced to life imprisonment, but was released after serving 3 years. He went onto write Scapegoats of the Empire, where he asserted that all three men had been scapegoats inorder to jump-start peace talks with the Boers. Let’s hope Capt. Robert Semrau doesn’t become a scapegoat too.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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