Tuesday, March 29, 2005

On Washington and torture

From Thomas Friedman's op-ed piece in last Thursday's New York Times, a welcome and heartening examination of George Washington and warmaking, especially in connection with how General Washington handled prisoners-of-war. Friedman reads Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer's Washington's Crossing (Oxford University Press, 2004), and notes that, in the eighteenth century, European custom dictated that prisoners were not entitled to be taken as POWs, nor entitled to their life under conditions of surrender; "[i]n 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." Especially poignant in times where mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners is justified by imagined crimes or intelligence withheld, Fischer explains that American warmaking was very different at the time of the Revolution:

"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."

That Americans won their independence by choosing "a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution" was due to the essential Father of Our Country.

Also: see a President's Day meditation on GW.


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