YouTube screenshot “Breaker Morant”
By Darren Smith, weekend contributor
I recently figured out what could be either an unfortunate accident, a bad joke, or the invisible hand of Boer War veteran Harry “Breaker” Morant in police work. Could it be joking that the Boston Police Department copied a line from the Australian film Breaker Morant when it codified the department’s guidelines on the use of deadly force?
The irony for Australian war movie fans might be that, even when warranted, the Boston police actually shoot people under “Rule 303”.
The film and its well-known line originate from the Second Anglo-Boer War in what is now South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century. The Australian citizen Harry “Breaker” Harbord Morant fought among the Bushveldt Carbineers for the British cause against a Boer uprising that sought to overthrow it. During his service he was on trial with Peter Handcock and George Witton for war crimes; accused of murdering a missionary and several prisoners of war. A main argument of the defense was that the men followed the established instructions of the senior officers. This was disputed from above at all levels during the process. In the end, both Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad, while Witton’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Lord Kitchener – although he was released much earlier. The trial sparked much controversy, particularly in Australia and elsewhere, where some camps believe that defendants, who were merely “scapegoats” for the political ambitions of the British government and the British military, were not given due process, and others the three represented an arm of an empire that was undoubtedly engaged in brutality against the resident population at the time.
The film followed much of a bestselling novel by George Witton called “Scapegoats of the Empire”. According to Witton, during the trial, Morant took an exception from questioning his actions during the war by military bureaucrats, where reality forced him to take strong measures to achieve military goals. From the book:
In defense, Lieutenant Morant stated that he had been under Captain Hunt and that he had evacuated the northern district of the Boers. It was a regular guerrilla war; Captain Hunt acted on orders received in Pretoria to evacuate Spelonken and not take prisoners. Captain Hunt had told him that Colonel Hamilton, military secretary, had given him orders to go to Lord Kitchener’s private house, which he had gone to with a pair of polo ponies just before leaving for Spelonken. The entire department knew about Captain Hunt’s orders not to take prisoners. After the death of Captain Hunt, he took command and went out with reinforcements. When he learned the circumstances of his death and how he had been mistreated, he told the others that he had previously disobeyed Captain Hunt’s orders, but in the future he would carry them out as he believed them to be lawful. The orders had only been given verbally by Captain Hunt, and he had cited the actions of Kitchener’s horse and Strathcona’s horse as precedents; He never questioned the validity of the orders, he was sure they were correct. He hadn’t shot a prisoner before Visser, and the facts in Visser’s case had been reported to Captain Taylor, as well as Major Lenehan and Colonel Hall.
“Was that how your court was constituted in the trial against Visser?” asked the President, “and have you observed paragraph – paragraph – of the king’s regulations?” “Was it so!” answered Morant vehemently. “No; it wasn’t quite so nice. Regarding rules and sections, we didn’t have a Red Book and didn’t know anything about it. We fought the Boers and didn’t sit comfortably behind barbed wire entanglements. We got them and shot them under rule 303.”
Rule 303 relates to the Lee Enfield .303 caliber rifle used during the war. The enforcement of the “rule” was featured prominently in the film.
However, it appears that rule 303 has revived with today’s Boston Police Department policy manual, if only in name and certainly not in practice.
~ + ~
Fortunately, the modern version of rule 303 involves a deeper appreciation for life and evokes a will to de-escalate a crisis situation in order to avoid the use of lethal force if possible, rather than the law of the jungle approach enforced through military weapons. To their obvious credit, Boston’s policies can serve as a model for other departments to develop their own. It is inevitable, however, that the codification of the number will be a little fun for those who remember the movie and the book. Perhaps the next time they revise the Directive’s nomenclature, they may choose a different numbering system than obsolete rifle calibers used by former Commonwealth armies. Maybe rule 308? Oh wait a minute. This is already used for Rule 308: Crime Control Program.
By Darren Smith
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not those of the blog, host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without prior approval or review. The content and all advertisements or works of art are solely your decision and responsibility.