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A “base and infamous” crime…

February 21, 2011

American President Demands
Humane Treatment of Prisoners
…but that was 236 years ago 

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.” 
                                  — George Washington, September 14, 1775:
                                       Charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force

No mail today. I forgot – it’s Washington’s Birthday. When you work at home, you can lose track of what’s going on in the real world. Still, focused as I am on the issue of torture and its impact both on its victims and its perpetrators, this is a national hero I try not to forget about. In a speech published by the Los Angeles Time toward the end of 2005, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., noted that “Revolutionary War leaders, including Washington and the Continental Congress, considered the decent treatment of enemy combatants to be one of the principal strategic preoccupations of the American Revolution.” 

“While Americans extended quarter to combatants as a matter of right and treated their prisoners with humanity,” Kennedy said, “British regulars and German mercenaries were threatened by their own officers with severe punishment if they showed mercy to a surrendering American soldier. Captured Americans were tortured, starved and cruelly maltreated aboard prison ships.” Washington’s stance, he noted, “puts to shame the conduct of America’s present leadership,” and he concluded that “America’s treatment of its prisoners is a test of our faith in our country and the character of our leaders.”

Kennedy was, of course, talking about the administration of then-President George W. Bush. I remain wistfully hopeful that the Obama administration – eventually – will reverse its predecessor’s policies, but the changes so far seem mostly cosmetic.
            In his Huffington Post blog for February 19, 2007, Scott Horton wrote “Against a loud public outcry of ‘an eye for an eye,’ George Washington stood fast. He made it a point of fundamental honor (and that was his word) that the Americans would not only hold dearly to the laws of war, they would define a new law of war that reflected the humanitarian principles for which the new Republic had risen.” After crossing the Delaware River to defeat the British and Hessian armies at Trenton, our first Commander-in-Chief’ gave the order,  to “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren.” 
            As David Hackett Fischer wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Washington’s Crossing: “In a desperate struggle [he] found a way to defeat a formidable enemy… [He] reversed the momentum of the war. [He] improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition. And [he] chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution.” 
            You can hear or read the transcript of Robert Krulwich’s interview with Professor Fischer on NPR’s website.  On the blog, Scott Horton (same name, different person) notes that, following the battle at Trenton, Washington intervened when he came across some of the Continental troops preparing to force Hessian prisoners to run the “gauntlet.” And it worked, he says: “Many of the German Hessians in fact joined the revolutionaries in their fight against the English and stayed here in America to be free when the war was won. Must we abandon this legacy? Is it already too late to reclaim it?” Good question…

(If ordering books or DVDs discussed in this blog from Amazon, please consider doing so through our website, which will help to support the work of The Refuge Media Project. Click on the book title above to be redirected to our site.) 

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