Book Review: Scapegoats: Thirteen Victims of Military Injustice


by Michael Scott

London: Elliott & Thompson / Chicago: Independent Publishers Group, Trafalgar Square, 2013. Pp. xiv, 322. Illus., maps, biblio, index. $29.95. ISBN: 1908739681

Circle the Wagons and Blame Someone Else

Former British Guardsaman and Falklands veteran, retired Major General Scott recounts some egregious instances of scapegoating in military history.  His baker’s dozen of cases include soldiers, sailors, corporals, generals, admirals, Americans, Canadians, Britons, Frenchmen, and an Israeli.  The cases are spread across nearly 250 years, from the mid-eighteenth to the late twentieth, and took place on four continents and several seas. Some of the cases resulted in death sentances, others ended careers, some led to social ostracism, and a number to damnation by generations of historians. 

The common thread linking all of these men together is that they were blamed for errors or blunders committed by someone else.   Some of the cases led to courts martial and even execution, while others ended careers or led to social ostracism or damnation by historians.

A few cases will be familiar, most famously that of John Byng, executed by the Royal Navy on no reasonable grounds to protect the reputations of higher ups, and that of Alfred Dreyfus, who remained imprisoned long after charges of espionage had been proved false, to protect the reputation of the French Army.  For Americans the cases of James Longstreet, victim of the “Lost Cause” defenders of Robert E. Lee, and Charles McVay, arguably the U.S. Navy’s Byng, will be familiar.

Other cases are less well known, though equally interesting , include those of British Capt. Jalheel Brenton Carey, blamed for the death of France’s Prince Imperial at the hands of the Zulu, British Col. Charles Bevan, blamed by Wellington to cover the Duke’s own error, Israeli chief-of-staff David Elazar, for alleged failures in the Yom Kippur War, the Canadian Roméo Antonius Dallaire, blamed for failing to prevent a genocidal massacre in Rwanda when responsibility rested primarily with his U.N. peacekeeping superiors, and so forth.

For each case, Scott opens with a review of the background, which is often overlong, not usually needed, and occasionally dated.  But when he gets into the details of the case as it unfolded, and explains why and how a more or less innocent person ended up being penalized Scott shines.  His account often looks into odd corners of political and military life in the period, the pathologies of institutional “wagon circling,” clashes of egos, and more, that caused the disgrace and at times the deaths of these men.  Scott adds a look at how each man was vindicated, albeit most often not in his lifetime, by popular demand and legal process, by family efforts, or, often, by historians seeking to set the record straight. 

Scapegoats is written for a popular audience, but it will prove good reading for military personnel, historians, and students of institutional culture.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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