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In 2008 the Victorian Attorney-General Rob Hulls officially pardoned a man named Colin Campbell Ross, convicted and then hanged in 1922 for the grisly Gun Alley murder.

There was something quite admirable about that campaign, largely driven by historian Kevin Morgan, for posthumous justice for Ross. Yes, the exoneration was inherently quixotic, since, officially guiltless or not, Ross remained quite dead. Nonetheless, the righting of an old wrong contained a message for today: in a media panic around sex crimes, it’s all too easy to railroad the innocent.

But it’s precisely the persistence of the past into the present that makes the efforts to rehabilitate Harry “Breaker” Morant so wrong-headed.

For those who missed the movie, Morant and his comrade Peter Handcock went to the firing squad in 1902 after executing 12 Boer prisoners and a German missionary. After a long campaign by Morant’s supporters, federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland has petitioned the British government for a pardon.

In the Age last week, historian Craig Wilcox succinctly explained why this was a bad idea. “Lining up civilians by the roadside and killing them,” he said, “that’s just not right.”

No, it’s not.

It’s particularly wrong given the context in which the killings took place. The Boer War’s largely forgotten now but more Australians died fighting it than in Vietnam. Furthermore, it was a war made unexpectedly familiar by events of the past decade, which have taught us something about imperial adventures in resource-rich lands in which both sides conduct themselves with unbridled ferocity.

After the initial British successes in South Africa, the Boer units resorted to guerrilla warfare, with non-uniformed irregulars blowing up bridges, trains and other infrastructure. In response, Lord Kitchener initiated a plan not unlike that currently unfolding in Helmand, in which, as one historian puts it, the British sought to “flush out guerrillas in a series of systematic drives, organised like a sporting shoot, with success defined in a weekly ‘bag’ of killed, captured and wounded …”

Breaker Morant served, in other words, in an Edwardian equivalent of the counterinsurgency teams upon which General McChrystal’s new Afghanistan strategy now rests — and he and his comrades were convicted of shooting dead detainees.

So what message does it send for a senior Australian politician to declare such a man should be pardoned?

Nick Bleszynski — who, with Commander James Unkles, is spearheading the push for exoneration — says this: “The issue isn’t what he did or didn’t do, but even a murderer in a democracy deserves justice. If you’re going to condemn Morant and Handcock, then you have to condemn many others as well.”

Let’s break that down.

Sure, capital punishment is, always and everywhere, a barbarism. But that makes the execution of Ted Bundy and Dr Crippen equally wrong — and there’s no one campaigning for pardons for them. Moreover, the technical inadequacies of the Morant trial don’t alter the reality that, unlike, say, Colin Ross, he and Handcock actually committed the atrocities of which they were accused. Morant’s final poem complained, after all, about the pettifogging restrictions not only against shooting Boers but looting them, too.

Bleszynski’s second claim — that the Australians were following orders; that many others were equally brutal — is more pertinent but not in the way he thinks. For, even if the authorities used Morant’s crimes to obscure their own guilt (as Geoffrey Robertson has suggested), that’s not a grounds to exonerate him so much as a reason to investigate others. The “following orders” defence doesn’t exculpate the rank-and-file — it implicates those in command, which is quite a different matter.

To use a contemporary example, Charles Graner and Lynndie England, the US personnel caught on camera mistreating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, received 10 years and three years gaol respectively for their part in the abuse, even though much of what they did was encouraged by senior officers. Should Graner and England walk free? Of course not! Justice demands not their freedom but the arrest of, for example, the people responsible for the memos authorising torture.

Given the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is not an issue of merely antiquarian interest. Here’s the Age again.

According to Mr Bleszynski, Morant refused to kill prisoners until one of his friends, Lieutenant Percy Hunt, was killed and mutilated.

“Morant at that point decided, ‘If that’s how they want it, that’s how they are going to get it’,” he said.

The basic elements of that tale could have been ripped from any contemporary narrative of occupation. To choose an example more or less at random, in 2007, a suicide bomber attacked a marine corps convoy en route to Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Enraged and seeking revenge, the marines opened fire indiscriminately at their surroundings, eventually killing or wounding 69 civilians.

Inevitably and understandably that soldiers in Afghanistan, like those in South Africa in a previous century, seek, in their anger and grief, payback for casualties. But it’s the job of governments to stamp out the “if that’s how they want it, that’s how they are going to get it” reaction, not to wink at revenge killings authorised by what Morant famously called “Rule 303”.

With Australian forces in Afghanistan seeking to win hearts and minds in a country where human rights abuses are not exactly unknown, why has a campaign to rehabilitate two war criminals won such high-powered endorsements (Tim Fischer, Senator Julian McGauran, Liberal MP David Hawker etc)? One suspects that it has less to do with the merits of the case and more to do with the Breaker’s reputation as a middling-bad bush poet, who liked a drink and looked dashing in a slouch hat. Morant, in other words, seems an Aussie’s Aussie — part Bryan Brown; part Banjo Paterson — and, in some quarters, that’s enough to mean that he couldn’t possibly have done anything wrong and that he couldn’t possibly have deserved any punishment.

Except that he did, and he did.

In response to the pardon push, South African military historian Hamish Paterson has suggested that, if there’s such concern about righting the wrongs in the Morant saga, Australia should begin by extending a formal apology about the 13 men the Breaker shot in cold blood.

Well, Paterson can expect that particular ceremony to take place on about the First of Never: we’re funny about apologies in these parts. Nonetheless, you could extend his argument even further. It was the Boer War, after all, that lent the English language the unhappy phrase “concentration camp”, coined to describe the compounds into which the British herded civilians so as to separate Boer insurgents from their backers. Predictably, more than 26,000 women and children duly died from disease and mistreatment, to the extent where Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the British Opposition, spoke in parliament of his country’s “methods of barbarism”.

At one level, then, Bleszynski is right: the military leadership in the Boer War covered itself with quite as much blood as that spilled by a low-level thug such as Morant. If politicians are serious about redressing historical injustices from that conflict, well, let’s just say they will be busy: there was no shortage of people on both sides treated much worse Morant and his pals.

But, again, the argument’s not really about the past.

We know that in Afghanistan at the moment Australia has authorised elite counterinsurgent forces to carry out targeted killings, in a strategy modelled upon the notorious Phoenix Program of the Vietnam War. A campaign of assassination of local leaders thought to be loyal to the Taliban contains an obvious potential for human rights abuses, especially since it’s almost impossible for the media to monitor what undercover troops actually do.

In that context, the rehabilitation of an unrepentant war criminal as a great Aussie hero is worse than unseemly — it’s dangerous.

Peter Fray

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