Generous Orthodoxy  




Sunday, October 16, 2005

George Washington and the treatment of prisoners

Thomas Friedman wrote a column on March 24 that bears repeating, especially since Washington's appeal has skyrocketed in recent years along with that of the other Founders. The title of the column was "George W. to George W." Here are some excerpts:

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I know war is hell and ugliness abounds in every corner. I also understand that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we are up against a vicious enemy, which, if it had the power, would do great harm to our country. You do not deal with such people with kid gloves. But killing prisoners of war, presumably in the act of torture, is an inexcusable outrage. The fact that Congress has just shrugged this off, and no senior official or officer has been fired, is a travesty...

By coincidence, while following this prisoner abuse story, I've been reading "Washington's Crossing," the outstanding book by the Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer about how George Washington and his troops rescued the American Revolution after British forces and German Hessian mercenaries had routed them in the early battles around New Jersey.

What is particularly moving is one of Mr. Fischer's concluding sections, "An American Way of War," in which he contrasts how Washington dealt with prisoners of war with how the British and Hessian forces did: "According to the 'the laws' of European war, quarter was the privilege of being allowed to surrender and to become a prisoner. By custom and tradition, soldiers in Europe believed that they had a right to extend quarter or deny it. ... In these 'laws of war,' no captive had an inalienable right to be taken prisoner, or even to life itself."

American attitudes were very different. "With some exceptions, American leaders believed that quarter should be extended to all combatants as a matter of right. ... Americans were outraged when quarter was denied to their soldiers." In one egregious incident, at the battle at Drake's Farm, British troops murdered all seven of Washington's soldiers who had surrendered, crushing their brains with muskets.

"The Americans recovered the mutilated corpses and were shocked," wrote Mr. Fischer. The British commander simply denied responsibility. "The words of the British commander, as much as the acts of his men," wrote Mr. Fischer, "reinforced the American resolve to run their own war in a different spirit. ... Washington ordered that Hessian captives would be treated as human beings with the same rights of humanity for which Americans were striving. The Hessians ... were amazed to be treated with decency and even kindness. At first they could not understand it." The same policy was extended to British prisoners.

In concluding his book, Mr. Fischer wrote lines that President Bush would do well to ponder: George Washington and the American soldiers and civilians fighting alongside him in the New Jersey campaign not only reversed the momentum of a bitter war, but they did so by not only reversed the momentum of a bitter war, but they did so by choosing "a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution. They set a high example, and we have much to learn from them."