Ask anybody who has seen combat and they’ll tell you all the poems are true. War really and truly is hell. In 5,000 years of recorded history that is one fact that has remained a constant. We try to keep the brutality civilized with rules of engagement and gentleman’s agreements like the Geneva Convention. The trouble is the winners of wars are more often than not guilty of tossing the rule book out the window. And in the case of the Geneva Convention when a war is fought against commando units who cannot be explicitly linked to any government it makes the convention nearly impossible to enforce. Such is the crux of the 1980 Australian movie “Breaker” Morant.
Set near the end of the second Boer War, the film follows the court marshal of three Australian officers who served in a British commando unit against the Boer guerrilla campaign. The British have long been proud of the notion that they are above all a nation of gentleman and this for centuries included what is perceived in America as an absurd approach to warfare. The movie presents as fact the idea that the British government was becoming much less “civilized” in its campaign against the independent Dutch colonies, and was attracting international attention as a result. The movie suggests that these three Australians had been selected as “scapegoats of the Empire” upon which could be placed the burden of the horrors of war.
The premise bears a striking resemblance to the modern-day accusations flying at the U.S. government as video footage of combat situations and post combat situations comes to light through wikileaks and other sources. Ten years ago things seemed more black and white. Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for the attacks on 9/11 and we were told something called the Taliban, which ruled a country called Afghanistan, was largely made up of high-ranking Al Qaeda operatives. Our forces were sent in to weed out the terrorists easy peasy. Suddenly we were moving into Iraq and looking threateningly at North Korea and the world seemed to be standing on its head.
A little time passed. American men and women who three or four years ago were looking for a quick and easy way to pay for a bachelor’s degree, which their parents told them was a golden ticket to wealth and happiness. Now they were looking at spending multiple years in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan far away from mom and apple pie. But in this digital age they weren’t quite far enough away and these ignorant adolescence started misbehaving as only soldiers can and soon their actions were showing up on the nightly news. The world quickly expressed its outrage and clamored for retribution. They point at youtube videos and pictures on CNN and say look at the evil Americans. Who could commit such atrocities in the name of justice? I admit when I heard that a video had been released of Marines urinating on Afghan dead I was shocked. Shocked not that these events occurred, but shocked that they were deemed newsworthy. I’ve never seen combat but I’ve seen the mob mentality of a group of adolescents. Add to that the daily pressures of war and you quickly arrive at that youtube video and far worse.
As Major Thomas says in his closing arguments of the court-martial, “The fact of the matter is that war changes men’s natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations. Situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have departed and have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger, blood and death.” It is a powerful speech in a powerful scene. And while it may fall on deaf ears in the court room, it should certainly ring loud and clear among the audience.
It is natural to make comparisons to A Few Good Men. One could argue that the Tome Cruise and Jack Nicholson classic is in fact an American remake of Breaker Morant. But where Cruise succeeds Jack Thompson as Major Thomas fails and as a result Morant’s message is made all the more powerful. Morant may have benefited from Hollywood’s insatiable love of action, particularly in the early moments of film. As I’ve said it really drags along until the scene in which we witness the loss of Morant’s Captain in a typical guerrilla attack.
Several characters tried to impress the idea that the mechanization of the 20th century drug warfare back down to a level of barbarism not seen in hundreds of years, but the argument is unconvincing. The American Revolution was won in part with guerrilla tactics and in the American Civil War the Confederate morale was dealt a heavy blow through Union General William T. Sherman‘s attacks on civilian targets through Georgia. No, as any Guns N’ Roses fan worth their mettle will tell you, there never has been and never will be anything civil about war. It is an uncomfortable fact made more so by the 24 hour news cycle and the accessibility afforded by the internet.