Feature photo: (L) Author – Major General (retired) Michael Scott – cover – Scapegoats – (R) Reviewer 12570 Mike Kennedy
“Scapegoats is one of those rare books that manages to be both deeply disturbing, and at the same time, highly inspiring.”
In his 1997 book Scapegoat, the late Peter Worthington examined the life of one of the central actors in the 1993 Somalia fiasco, former Private Kyle Brown of the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Worthington’s conclusion was that, far from being the evil brute military prosecutors had made him out to be, Brown and others like him were victims of a calculated attempt by senior officers to cover their own backsides by pushing the blame for that situation down upon the shoulders of lower-ranking soldiers. In Brown’s case, he suffered the humiliation of being “dismissed with disgrace” from the Canadian Forces, and served 40 months in prison before disappearing into the anonymity of civilian life.
If Worthington’s assessment is correct, then Brown certainly wasn’t the only soldier in history to suffer unnecessary injustice. In a book that coincidentally bears almost the exact same title, retired British Major General Michael Scott profiles thirteen soldiers and sailors who were subjected to similar indignities. Ranging in rank from Lance Corporal to Lieutenant General, their stories are those of basically honourable and well-intentioned men who invariably were unfortunate enough to find themselves in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
Consider the case of Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who in the years after the Civil War was pilloried for his alleged mistakes at the crucial battle of Gettysburg in July 1863. Longstreet, known to his contemporaries as “Old Pete”, had graduated three spots from the bottom of West Point’s Class of 1842. His unimpressive performance at the military academy did not deter Longstreet from developing into a very capable officer who served with distinction in the Mexican War and later rose steadily through the ranks of the peacetime U.S. Army. Like many Southerners, Longstreet joined the Confederates when the Civil War broke out. His heroic performance at Antietam in 1862 earned a Longstreet a promotion at Lieutenant General, where he served as one of Robert E. Lee’s key subordinates.
Gettysburg, which proved to be a massive defeat for the Confederates, was the crucial turning point of the Civil War. Up until that point, the Southerners had hoped that they would be able to contain the Union forces and negotiate terms for peace from a position of strength. After Gettysburg, it became clear that this would be impossible. Even though the war would continue for near two more years, and consume countless thousands of lives in the process, there was no doubt that the tide had irrevocably turned in the Union’s favour. From that point onwards, the best the Confederates could do was fight a valiant, but nonetheless increasingly desperate, defensive campaign.
Longstreet himself would continue to fight on for the rest of the Civil War, at one point suffering a serious wound that cost him the use of his right arm. The assault on his reputation did not begin until after the war had ended. In the difficult years that followed, Southerners embittered by their defeat could not bring themselves to believe that their godlike General Lee had somehow failed. Hence, Longstreet became a convenient scapegoat to carry the can for the humiliation at Gettysburg. The theory that Longstreet was somehow responsible for that disaster was supported by other former Confederate Generals such as Jubal Early, who were apparently eager to gloss over their own failures during the war.
Longstreet attempted to defend record, with varying degrees of success, until his death in 1904. Although his reputation had been sullied by former colleagues, it was clear that he retained the respect and admiration of those who had served under him. As one former officer noted many years after the war “All these damnable lies about Longstreet make me want to shoulder a musket and fight another war. There was no greater fighter in the Confederate Army than Longstreet. I’ll defend him as long as I live.”
Scott also notes that soldiers who were much lower in the military pecking-order ran just as much a risk of ending up as scapegoats for larger problems for which they bore little or no blame. A case in point is Lance Corporal Robert Jesse Short, who served in the British Army in the Great War. Executed by firing squad on 4 October, 1917, Short was arguably as much a victim of his times and circumstances as he was of any of his own misdeeds.
By the early autumn of 1917, the Great War had dragged on for far longer, and at vastly greater cost, than anyone had originally anticipated. Even though both sides had already paid a huge price in both men and materiel, no end to the conflict was readily in sight. Moreover, in the spring of that year the French Army, which had been stretched almost to the breaking point, had been plagued by a series of mutinies. The prospect that similar disturbances might erupt within their ranks was a thought that terrified senior British commanders.
It was against this background that Short found himself in a massive resupply camp in Étapes, France, in September 1917. Thirty-one years old at the time, Short was not exactly a stellar soldier, as he had previously been twice booted out of the peacetime Army for unsatisfactory service. Nonetheless, when the war came in 1914 he re-enlisted in December, and in the years that followed evidently served well enough to merit promotion to acting Corporal. Given the dates of his service, it is almost certain he would have seen action at the Somme, and very possibly in other major actions as well.
By the time Short arrived at Étapes, conditions in the camp were highly problematic. Food was poor, leadership was ineffective, and few outlets for recreation were provided. Not surprisingly, trouble simmered, and on the evening of September 9 it boiled over, starting when military police roughed up a New Zealand gunner for no good reason. This incident sparked a series of disturbances which continued over the next few days, and which the camp authorities made some ham-fisted attempts to control.
Thankfully, things eventually settled down, the men returned peacefully to their barracks, but apparently not before the higher-ups decided that someone had to be made an example of. That turned out to be Lance Corporal Short, who on 12 September was paraded before a court martial, charged with mutiny, and sentenced to be shot. The sentence was duly carried out on 4 October, thus satisfying the official need for retribution, even though it remains very unclear whether Short was actually guilty of anything. It was not until nearly 100 years later, in 2006, that Short was somewhat vindicated, when an Act of Parliament extended posthumous pardons to him and to 300 other soldiers who had been executed for various offences, both real and imagined, over the course of the Great War.
Probably the most famous case to grace these pages is that of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the French Army officer who was convicted of treason in 1894 and sentenced to life imprisonment on the infamous Devil’s Island. By that time a career artillery officer with twelve years of previously unblemished service, Dreyfus was described as intellectually talented, but also aloof and opinioned, qualities that did not endear him to his brother officers. His greatest sin, however, may have been the fact that he was a Jew of German origins, serving at a time when both French and its Army were gripped in a tide of rising anti-Semitism.
When French authorities became aware in the summer of 1894 that someone was passing highly classified information on to the Germans, suspicion quickly centered on Dreyfus. After being convicted at a sham of a court martial in December, Dreyfus was sentenced to be publicly stripped of his rank, following which he was summarily shipped off to the remote prison island, all the while vigorously protesting his innocence.
Drefus’s family continued to press his cause as best they could, and it eventually came to light that his conviction had been based largely on secret documents to which his defence was never provided access. Soon, the case began to attract the attention of the French press, which published a series of increasingly embarrassingly revelations. Concurrent with these developments, the authorities that had engineered Dreyfus’s conviction did their best to ignore or suppress mounting evidence that the real culprit was a rival officer named Esterhazy, who had sold his soul to his German masters as part of a desperate attempt to resolve personal financial difficulties.
The flashpoint in the Dreyfus affair came in January 1898, when the newspaper L’Aurore published a lengthy and explosive letter from the highly respected novelist Émile Zola. Entitled “J’accuse” and personally addressed to the President of France, Zola’s letter named names and pulled no punches, and presented a passionate and compelling argument that the Army’s treatment of Dreyfus had been a travesty. The full text of Zola’s letter can be found here https://faculty.georgetown.edu/guieuj/others/IAccuse/Jaccuse.htm.
Public reaction to Zola’s letter was both swift and severe: the case became a national sensation, and the French intelligentsia mobilized to support the Dreyfus cause and demanded immediate redress. Faced with mounting pressure, the government relented, and in May 1899 the verdict in the original trial was annulled, and Dreyfus was returned home to face a second trial. Even though he was convicted a second time by a military court desperate to protect the Army’s reputation, at the beginning of 1900 the government declared an amnesty in the Dreyfus case. Finally, in July 1906, the verdict in the second court martial was overturned, and Alfred Dreyfus was vindicated once and for all.
Whether they were victims of conniving superiors, bureaucratic incompetence, backroom politics, or just plain bad luck, the thirteen men whose stories are told in Scapegoats all paid a heavy price for their misfortunes. Most suffered irreparable harm to their careers and reputations, several had to face court martials that were hell-bent on handing down a conviction, and more than one ended his days on this earth in front of a firing squad.
Their stories all have different endings. Some, like Alfred Dreyfus, were lucky enough to survive their ordeals and eventually be exonerated of any wrongdoing. Others, like Captain Charles McVay, who took the blame for the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the loss of 800 sailors in 1945, continued to be haunted by their experiences for the rest of their lives. In McVay’s case, even though he was eventually allowed to continue his naval career, he remained tormented by his inner demons, and took his own life on a snowy November morning in 1968. It was only as a result of determined and vigorous lobbying by surviving members of his crew that McVay’s name was finally officially cleared by the U.S. Navy in 2001.
Reading these stories, I reminded of the case of one old classmate of mine, who less than month before graduation in 1981 was railroaded out of the College after being hastily convicted of a set of largely bogus charges. His unique claim to fame is that he may well be the only cadet in RMC’s history who was ever forced to write his final exams under the watchful eyes of two armed MP’s. Even though he passed his exams with First Class Honours and had excelled in infantry training, his subsequent efforts to appeal his dismissal went nowhere.
Thankfully, in my buddy’s case, there was a somewhat happy ending. Though he never did receive his degree or commission (a real shame, because I’d gladly go to war with him, any day of the week) he did eventually on to become a successful and highly respected lawyer, and a prominent champion of the rights of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.
It is worth noting, as well, that the author of this book is no academic historian, but rather a seasoned professional soldier who himself has tasted blood in battle. A career Scots Guards officer, as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1982 Michael Scott led the 2nd Battalion of his regiment in the epic battle of Tumbledown Mountain during the Falklands War. Facing bitter opposition from hardcore Argentine Marines, Scott and his men nonetheless emerged victorious, though ten of their numbers were killed and a further 53 were wounded. For his leadership, Scott was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and six other members of the battalion received decorations recognizing their courage.
If there is any recurring theme throughout this book, it may be that in one way or another, the thirteen “scapegoats” whose stories are told were, more than anything else, victims of bad leadership from above. But notwithstanding the egregious injustices they were subjected to, many conducted themselves with impressive restraint and honour, refusing to point the finger or pass the buck, and oftentimes defending their reputations with remarkable tenacity. Some were regrettably compelled to pay the ultimate price; others, like Captain Dreyfus, survived and were eventually vindicated, and later went on to serve with distinction. All, however, were fundamentally decent men who in one way or another found themselves in the throes of a bad set of circumstances, and as a result were suffered to take the heat and bear the blame for larger events they could do little or nothing about.
Scapegoats is one of those rare books that manages to be both deeply disturbing, and at the same time, highly inspiring. The cases it recounts provide a stark reminder of the fact that the ideals associated military honour and service can, at times, become all too easily corrupted by schemers and bureaucrats intent on serving their own ends. Major General Scott’s careful research and impeccable writing both combine to tell a series of thirteen stories that deserve to be forever remembered, but hopefully never repeated. Overall, this book is a first-rate contribution to the literature on military history and leadership, and one for which the author deserves to be highly commended.
Book Review – Scapegoats: Thirteen Victims of Military Injustice
By Major General (retired) Michael Scott – Published by Elliott Thompson – 322 pp. $32.95
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy