Friday, December 19, 2008

Washington on torture

From The Dark Side by Jane Mayer

In the Revolutionary War, George Washington and the Contintenal Army were regarded by the British as treasonous, “illegal combatants” undeserving the protections of legitimate soldiers, the same category into which the Bush administration was casting terror suspects. As a result, the British freely brutalized and killed American prisoners of war, in conditions considered scandalous even in that day. In contrast, Washington ordered American troops to take a higher road in keeping with the ideals of the new republic. He insisted that enemy captives must be given food and medical attention and be housed in conditions that were no worse than those of the American soldiers. In directives still eloquent today, he ordered his troops to treat British war prisoners “with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of us copying the brutal manner of the British Army … While we are contending for our own liberty we should be very cautious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case, are they answerable.”

Washington’s orders, which became the backbone of American military doctrine until 2001, were not simply gestures of kindness or even morality. They sprang also from a shrewd calculation that brutality undermines military discipline and strengthens the enemy’s resolve, while displays of humanity could be used to tactical advantage. As David Hackett Fisher wrote in Washington’s Crossing, his Pulitzer Prize-winning history, the superior treatment of enemy captives by American soldiers bolstered their morale and fomented desertion among the British and Hessian soldiers. In so doing, he wrote, “They reversed the momentum of the war. They improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition. They chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution.”

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