Film class — week 6

29 September 2006, 2202 EDT

Film #6 “Breaker Morant” (1980). We viewed it Tuesday.

Readings for Thursday: Krauthammer, Charles, “The Unipolar Moment Revisited,” The National Interest, Winter 2002/2003, pp. 5-17.

Fukuyama, Francis, “The Neoconservative Moment,” The National Interest, Summer 2004, pp. 57-68.

If you haven’t seen “Breaker Morant,” I highly recommend it. It is a great film about the dirty underbelly of the so-called “Boer War” (1899-1902). Its themes resonate today as much as they did when the film was made, not long after the Vietnam war ended. I assigned the film and readings as part of the section on “liberal internationalism.”

The film is set during an imperial British war, but it is really a courtroom drama. Three defendants, including the title character, are accused by the crown of violating the laws of war. They killed Boers who had surrendered, but claimed this “take no prisoners” approach was common practice in their unconventional unit (the Bushveldt Carbineers) constructed to defeat a slippery opponent (of “bitter enders”) that used nontraditional methods. The soldiers claim the practice implemented orders from their military superiors.

There is no question but that the British used brutal methods in the Boer war. They employed a “scorched earth” policy to starve out their opponents. Many thousands of POWs were transported out of the country so that they would not have to be fed locally, and tens of thousands of women and children were rounded up and put in camps. Substantial numbers died in these camps of starvation, disease and exposure.

It is natural to compare the British Boer war to the American experiences in Vietnam and Iraq. The trial, especially, brings to mind Abu Ghraib and the British strategy reminds one of the American military’s strategy in Fallujah.

The readings reflect a contemporary neoconservative debate about the prospects for the Bush administration’s vision of liberal internationalism. Krauthammer is a well-known booster, based in large part on his long conviction that superior American military power, combined with widely supported goals, grant the US the right to root out whatever threats it identifies and to promote democratic government around the world.

Fukuyama has become a neocon skeptic and thinks that military power is an ineffective weapon for pursuing these goals. He’s not a fan of nation-building, which he views as global social engineering, and thus thinks that US efforts are likely doomed to fail. Indeed, Fukuyama points to the many failings in Iraq and wonders how Krauthammer can write about the meaning of America’s supremacy given events on the ground.

Obviously, these readings are not directly on-point to the film, but they do get at the tension some would say is endemic in trying to promote democracy at gunpoint.

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