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Oct 22, 2011

Defence Association opposes reopening Breaker Morant case.

Image: Breaker Morant.

Every few years there are calls for the case of Harry “Breaker” Morant to be reopened, usually over the discovery of new information in the case, which saw him executed by the British during the Boer War 110 years ago. Many doubts were expressed over the validity of the evidence used, and the Australian Government was only informed after the execution was carried out.

The Defence Association raises some interesting points in their objection to the current application:

Attorney-General Robert McClelland has revealed he will write to the British government requesting it re-examine Morant's case amid fresh evidence the Boer War lieutenant was following orders when he authorised 12 prisoners shot in 1901.

But Australia Defence Association Neil James said the decision could lead to an unwanted precedent.

“Our basic view is it is very dangerous for modern day activists to agitate for change without knowing exactly the historical circumstances of the time when decisions were made,” Mr. James told The Australian Online.

“Unfortunately it has become fashionable just to say, everyone in the past was dumber than we are now and therefore we need to change their decision. “It's a very arrogant, and in many cases dangerous, decision.”
Attitudes have changed considerably over the time since this case occurred and particularly over the last few decades. The defense of ‘just following orders’ was brought into perspective in the Eichmann case in the early 60s.

It is generally accepted that the prosecution was an effort to appease German outrage at the time and that a decision was made to make Colonials scapegoats in this effort. There is also little doubt that orders were made by Kitchener, which were carried out by Morant and others. There is also little doubt that he was guilty as charged.

Repeated attempts to review the case have been consistently rejected by British authorities. There is little reason to think that this effort is anything more than flogging a dead horse, and given that whether or not the order to execute prisoners was given is irrelevant in the modern era, there seems little point in raising it.

Given that actions taken in the past were carried out in the light of different social values, following this line creates the risk of some who are survivors of past conflicts being judged adversely for actions, which would have been considered honorable at the time they were taken.

Morant has been largely exonerated in public perception over the years and has been raised to the status of folk hero. He was no angel, and probably not a villain in his time. There seems to be little reason to disturb the status quo on this issue.

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