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Scapegoat or murderer?


Joe Warmington’s column, Canadian Soldier Kills Taliban (Jan. 3, 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.

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).

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.

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.
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”.

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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