Moral and ethical issues have seldom been so vividly and forcefully dramatized as they have in the distinguished Australian film Breaker Morant, winner last year of 10 Academy Awards. Based on a play by Kenneth Ross, the film deals with the court martial of three Australian soldiers accused of killing six prisoners and a German missionary during the Boer War in South Africa (1899–1902). The defendants are Captain Harry “Breaker” Morant (former horsebreaker in Australia)—poet, singer, and Renaissance figure but volatile and impulsive; Lieutenant Peter Handcock—freewheeling ladies man; and George Witton—a sensitive but naïve young lad.
Flashbacks reveal that when a contingent of their men was ambushed and their commanding officer, Captain Hunt, was killed and mutilated, Morant sought revenge by pursuing the Boers responsible and ordering them shot. Subsequently, Handcock shot a German missionary suspected of leading the Australians into the ambush, and Witton killed a Boer who jumped him and attempted to escape. All three defendants pleaded innocent on the grounds that they were following orders to execute prisoners, allegedly given by Captain Hunt, who, in turn, was allegedly following orders from supreme commander Lord Kitchener.
The basic issue can be stated as follows: Is it morally permissible to kill prisoners and even noncombatants in wartime? Relevant moral laws and principles include, most obviously, the Sixth Commandment—respect for human life. Also applicable are the words of Jesus labeled “The Golden Rule” (Luke 6:31). Further, there are the man-made codes of warfare, especially those established by the Geneva Convention, which include such provisions as the treatment and care of the wounded and sick, humane treatment ...1
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