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 of prisoners, and protection of civilians and noncombatants in times of war.

In some ways paralleling the more recent Calley trial in the U.S., the case of Breaker Morant brings out at least five major points of supposed justification for violating the laws of God and man in killing prisoners and even civilians in wartime. Of primary significance in the defense’s case is the argument of justification by precedent and authority of command. The defense attorney points out that “orders one would consider barbarous have already been issued: burning Boer farmhouses, herding women and children.…”

Herein, of course, is a basic conflict of principles. On the one hand, one is to obey the laws of God and men in regard to treating prisoners and noncombatants humanely. But on the other hand, one is to “obey them that have rule over [him], and submit [oneself]” (Heb. 13:17). Morant’s initial response to Hunt’s order, like Witton’s response to Morant’s, reveals the struggle.

Article continues below

A second justification is the argument of pragmatism, an appeal to survival. The rationale goes: We are only reacting to the enemy’s barbarous actions. Morant puts it bluntly: “We caught them and we shot them under Rule 303. We fought the Boer the way he fought us.”

Similarly, Handcock demonstrates the explosive shells used by the Boers and says to Witton: “These are dumdums. They put a little hole here [indicating the forehead] and then in the back of the head—BOOM! Don’t talk to me about right and wrong!”

The defense attorney expressed the point as follows: “When the rules and customs of war are departed from by one side, one must expect some departure from the other side.…” The pragmatic principle is essentially a reversal of the Golden Rule: “As thy enemy doeth unto thee, do ye even so unto him,” or, “Do thy enemy in before he can do thee in.”

A third justification involves the ad hominem argument. Says the defense attorney: “The Boers are outlaws, renegades.” The implication is that one is perfectly justified in killing prisoners and civilians because the enemy is morally inferior and therefore not worthy to live. War, in fact any kind of conflict, invaribly involves stereotyping, false categorizing (“good guys” vs. “bad guys”), and dehumanization. In his classic treatise On War, Karl von Clausewitz defined war as “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will.” What is fundamental about violence is that the basic right of the dignity of human personhood is violated. Even before physical violence is done to him, psychological violence is done in that his right to dignity is violated when he is considered morally or ethnically inferior, and so unfit to live.

A fourth justification carries a double-edged argument: either it is a “just war” (justifiable?) in which the Almighty works his divine will through killing, or it is an ignoble cause, in which the means can hardly be expected to be noble—the end vilifies the means. Both angles are represented in Breaker Morant. The British chaplain’s prayer implies the former: “Bless our men, O God, Who works His will in war as in peace.” Morant expresses the other: “The Boer War is a bad cause: a few million men fighting against a few thousand farmers.”

In neither case—whether a justifiable war or an unjustifiable one—are assaults on noncombatants justified. Paul Ramsey expressed the point well: “If combatants may and should be resisted directly by violent means to secure a desired and desirable victory, this also requires that noncombatants be never directly assaulted even to that same end” (The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility).

Article continues below

Finally, and perhaps most basic, is that justification predicated on the argument of the amorality of war. “Laws designed to moderate behavior in war may be made,” Peter Craigie points out, “but it is of the essence of war to be an expression of lawlessness” (The Problem of War in the Old Testament). As history has amply illustrated, both sides commit “war crimes”—but ordinarily only the losers are brought to trial. Or, in the case of Breaker Morant, the individuals are sacrificed for “peace” as scapegoats.

Morant clearly verbalizes the view of the amorality of war: “This is a war—not a debutante’s ball! There are no rules here!” We have gone from the “ought” and the “ought not” to the nought. “It’s a new kind of war for a new century,” says Morant the improbable prophet.

The defense attorney argues that war alters human nature: “There is no evidence that Morant has an intrinsically barbarous nature. War changes men’s nature. The barbarities of war are seldom conducted by barbarous men. The tragedies of war—they are conducted by normal men in abnormal situations.” The argument sounds convincing, but it is basically specious. The truth of the matter is that war is an objectification and extension of what is already within us. “What causes fights and quarrels among you?” (James 4:1). “Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?” Morant’s ironic epitaph—Matthew 10:36, “A man’s foes shall be they of his own household,”—has another ironic edge. His “foes” are not just the British who convict and execute him; they are the urges warring within his own heart.

The essence of war may be an expression of lawlessness, but surely it does not obviate the need for basic human decencies, respect for human personhood, obedience to basic laws of God and man. The law of love is not rescinded on the field of battle. When we are breakers of this law we demean life—and we violate ourselves.

Dr. Kehl is professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.