Saturday, July 19, 2014

Study Guide for ‘Breaker’ Morant

Breaker’ Morant, the 1980 film about a war crime and the subsequent court martial during the British war against the Afrikaans settlers in South Africa, is a story for our time at least as much as it was for the time it was first released. The questions it raises would have been especially relevant during Operation Desert Storm, when the West banded together to drive the army of Saddam’s Iraq from Kuwait. One image that endures from that war is of the Highway of Death, where Saddam’s troops were mowed down in Iraq, after they had given up the fight and left Kuwait, as they were retreating full speed to Baghdad. Casualties also included civilians who happened to be nearby at the time. Another memorable image is of the civilians killed in hotels and hospitals by US bombs intended, according to the US, for the military targets Saddam had placed underneath them.
I was out of the country until Desert Storm was all but forgotten, so I may have missed a heated national debate, but I never remember hearing of anyone (least of all me) asking such questions as these:
  • Were those soldiers and civilians killed legitimate targets, were they murdered, or were they “only” collateral damage?
  • If they were murdered, who is responsible for their murder?
  • Who is responsible to deal with the murderers?
  • If they were collateral damage, whom does God charge with determining how much collateral damage is permissible?
  • What criteria would that person or group use to make their determination?
I find these questions branches off of questions that go to the heart of what it means to be a Christian neighbor.
  • Under what conditions are we no longer commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves?
  • Under what conditions are we no longer commanded to do for our neighbors what we would have them do for us?
  • Under what conditions are we no longer commanded to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us?
  • Under what conditions does the end justify the means?
Today, a dozen years after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, these questions are still relevant.
Breaker’ Morant is based on the account of the lone survivor of the court martial, so it may safely be considered biased, but the characterizations of both protagonists and antagonists are sophisticated enough to be worth pondering.
Before continuing, the reader would do well to be familiar with the Boer Wars; the Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any. There we find that these were wars between two colonial powers fighting over land and resources stolen from the original black inhabitants. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as in Vietnam, the enemy of the soldier protagonists, the Boers of the British in this case, was nameless and perfidious, and even more so because they spoke an unintelligible language and engaged in guerrilla warfare.
A Brief Synopsis of the Plot (Spoiler Alert)
The incident that triggers the plot is a nighttime raid by a British platoon on a Boer guerrilla camp. Assured that they will be taking the Boers by surprise, the British attack in plain sight, and many of them are killed by the Boers, including Captain Smith, the father of Morant’s intended bride. Morant later learns that Captain Smith was not killed in the original fusillade but captured and tortured to death. Soon after that a group of Boers, starving because the British have imprisoned all the Boer farmers in the area and commandeered the entire food supply, surrenders. Morant, convinced that they are the ones who killed Captain Smith, has them shot by a firing squad, and he has a buddy execute the local German clergyman whom he suspects of having alerted the Boers to the impending attack.
As the court martial progresses, we find that the activities for which Morant and his friends are being tried as murderers are common practice, engaged in by even the judges, who are themselves soldiers. Further, the government in London is especially interested in seeing the conviction not because of concern for the Boers but because it will strengthen the British case in negotiations of a treaty that could grant them access to lands rich in exploitable resources.
The three men are found guilty. Morant and one of his friends are shot by a firing squad; the third man spends ten years in prison, and it is in the closing credits that the film is based on his account of the ordeal.
The verbal exchange that prompts this post takes place on the way to the firing squad. The chaplain asks Morant if he can pray for him. Morant says no, he’s an atheist. The chaplain then asks the companion the same question. The companion asks Morant what an atheist is, to which Morant replies that an atheist doesn’t believe that there is a good supreme being who works to bring justice to the world. The companion at that point says he’s an atheist also.
Study Questions (Relevant even if you haven’t seen the film)
  1. In what way did the protagonists (Morant and his two friends) reflect the image of God? In what ways were they trying to love their neighbors as they loved themselves?
  2. In what ways did they show that the image of God in them was fallen? In what ways were they “looking out for Number One”?
  3. How did they view their own morality?
  4. If Morant had been an evangelical Christian, how would Jesus have guided him to deal with the Boers after Captain Smith’s death?
  5. What justification was there for the British to invade the Boer territory? For the Boers to fight the British? For the Boers to colonize Africa? In short, who was in the right in this situation?
  6. If no one was in the right, under what conditions should evangelicals put themselves in situations where everyone is doing wrong?
  7. Morant was Australian, not British. Had he been evangelical, should he have enlisted to fight?
  8. In what way did the antagonists (the court martial) reflect the image of God? In what way did they show that the image of God in them was fallen? How did they view their own morality?
  9. How would the court martial have ruled had those on it been evangelical Christians?
  10. The chaplain was clearly a one-dimensional character, probably meant to be Catholic or Anglican. His job was to serve God and serve his “country” (i.e., his government). Would you say that in his interactions with the three protagonists he served both equally, or did he put his country’s interests before those of God, or did he put the interests of God before those of his country?
  11. How would he have acted differently had he been evangelical?
  12. There are two firing squads in the story: the one that executes the Boers captured after the Captain Smith’s death, and the one at the end of the movie. How should a Christian have responded when ordered to be part of those firing squads?
  13. Given what he has experienced at the hands of the powers that be, ordained of God, what evidence would you present to Morant that there is a loving supreme being who dispenses divine justice?
I submit that the wrongs done by the Boers to the original black inhabitants of the territories were made possible by the state, specifically the mentality that grants the state legitimacy. Without the power to tax and the influence that comes from a Romans 13 view of government power, individual Boers would have had to negotiate with the local African clans for land and either acted honorably or faced the Africans’ wrath. They could not have relied on the Dutch guns to defend and advance their cause. The same can be said of the British vis à vis the Boers. Both the British and the Boers wanted the rules of engagement to favor them: the British were heavily armed and wore uniforms, so they considered it unfair of the Boers to use stealth. The Boers considered stealth legitimate because they could not hope to outgun the British; they were not about to line up in the open and let the British gun them down.
I think it safe to assume that the Africans would have viewed themselves as in the right because it was their land to begin with. The Boers would have viewed themselves as in the right because they were civilized “Christians” appropriating God’s earth for God’s, not demons’, purposes. The British would have considered themselves in the right because – well, because the British have always considered themselves God’s chosen people, I guess.
In the same way, US evangelicals considered themselves justified in bombing Iraq and killing both retreating soldiers in their own country and civilians during Desert Storm and again during Iraqi Freedom, as well as Afghanistan after 9/11, for some combination of pretty much the same reasons: the Iraqis and Afghans were simply the Boers and Africans, respectively, to Uncle Sam’s Brits.
Please, somebody, find me the good guy in ‘Breaker’ Morant. Find me the character that an evangelical can be, who “needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” If none can be found, I suggest that no evangelical could please God by participating in Uncle Sam’s wars in the Middle East.

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