Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Washington And The Hessians

An absurd study in contrasts courtesy The New York Times

Colorado Bob inspired the start of this essay, and President George W. Bush inspired the latter part. Let's see how those two parts fit together, shall we? Colorado Bob wrote a comment to a previous article mentioning NPR's Robert Krulwich discussing the story of George Washington deciding to spare his army's Hessian prisoners after the British murdered captured American soldiers brutally. This reminded me of a comment I'd posted at Firedoglake right after the Military Commissions Act was passed. The MCA is also known as The Torture Act of 2006, President Bush's "get out of jail free" card, and the lowest point in Congressional history since Preston Brookes beat the snot out of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate for denouncing slavery. That was in May, 1856, by the way. Senator Hillary Clinton made a speech against the MCA that recalled that decision of Washington's so long ago:

Here’s a part of Sen. Clinton’s speech on the Torture Act today:

During the Revolutionary War, between the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which set our founding ideals to paper, and the writing of our Constitution, which fortified those ideals under the rule of law, our values – our beliefs as Americans – were already being tested.

We were at war and victory was hardly assured, in fact the situation was closer to the opposite. New York City and Long Island had been captured. General George Washington and the continental army retreated across New Jersey to Pennsylvania, suffering tremendous casualties and a body blow to the cause of American Independence.

It was at this time, among these soldiers at this moment of defeat and despair, that Thomas Paine would write, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Soon afterward, Washington led his soldiers across the Delaware River and onto victory in the Battle of Trenton. There he captured nearly 1000 foreign mercenaries and he faced a crucial choice.

How would General Washington treat these men? The British had already committed atrocities against Americans, including torture. As David Hackett Fischer describes in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Washington’s Crossing,” thousands of American prisoners of war were “treated with extreme cruelty by British captors.” There are accounts of injured soldiers who surrendered being murdered instead of quartered. Countless Americans dying in prison hulks in New York harbor. Starvation and other acts of inhumanity perpetrated against Americans confined to churches in New York City.

The light of our ideals shone dimly in those early dark days, years from an end to the conflict, years before our improbable triumph and the birth of our democracy. General Washington wasn’t that far from where the Continental Congress had met and signed the Declaration of Independence. But it’s easy to imagine how far that must have seemed. General Washington announced a decision unique in human history, sending the following order for handling prisoners:“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.”

Therefore, George Washington, our commander-in-chief before he was our President, laid down the indelible marker of our nation’s values even as we were struggling as a nation – and his courageous act reminds us that America was born out of faith in certain basic principles. In fact, it is these principles that made and still make our country exceptional and allow us to serve as an example. We are not bound together as a nation by bloodlines. We are not bound by ancient history; our nation is a new nation. Above all, we are bound by our values.

George Washington understood that how you treat enemy combatants could reverberate around the world. We must convict and punish the guilty in a way that reinforces their guilt before the world and does not undermine our constitutional values.

Many of the Hessians Washington spared that day later settled in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and became American citizens. The British, despite their cruelty and despite being one of the world’s preeminent military powers, were not able to persuade enough of the rebels to give up in order to defeat the rest. Five years later, they were gone.

Both parties should be thoroughly ashamed of their collective actions today. Individuals may be able to take some comfort in doing the right thing, but as parties they’ve disgraced themselves.

Oh, and Rep. Sherrod “I’ll stand up to my party when I think they’re wrong” Brown can eat my shorts.

Comment by Cujo359 to Firedoglake article "Good Times"

As you may be able to tell from some of my writing, I'm no fan of Senator Clinton's. But she stood up and did the right thing that day by opposing and speaking against this heinous, cowardly act. The aptly surnamed Sherrod Brown, now a Senator, voted in favor, and pissed on his own supporters while doing it. Personally, I have no use for the man. He apparently can't remember the oath he took when he became a congressman.

Roughly one out of four Hessians stayed in America after the war, according to Krulwich's guest, Prof. Fisher, author of Washington's Crossing. Their descendants today probably number in the hundreds of thousands. The British empire prospered for a while longer, then finally collapsed, at least partly because Mahatma Ghandi made the British aware of the cruelty that had built it in the first place.

Washington's decision to spare the Hessians happened in the winter of 1777, the worst for the Continental Army. I'm not an expert on Washington by any means, but as a general, he didn't have a particularly good record. The only battles of any significance that I recall him winning were at Trenton and Yorktown. However, he did something much more important than winning. He kept his army together for five long, grass-eating, disease-ridden, and largely defeat-ridden years through winters with little in the way of shelter, and even though the army consisted entirely of volunteers signed up for only a few months at a time. Had they chosen to, I'm sure that many of his soldiers could have deserted with no danger of being caught - there wasn't even a true nation behind the army, just a group of local governments banded together loosely and at times not very comfortably. He kept that army together long enough to outlast the most powerful nation on earth at the time with only a small army and no real navy to speak of. That accomplishment, and the incident in question, speak volumes about Washington's courage, humanity, and wisdom.

On President's Day, 2007, George W. Bush decided to compare himself to George Washington. In keeping with its tradition of only putting the President in front of docile, hand-picked audiences, his handlers brought a busload of high school students from Georgetown. I cannot imagine a starker contrast between two men who have held the same job. Bush couldn't have lasted a week doing what Washington had to do. Washington held an army together with little more than his will. Bush, when confronted with his first real crisis, froze for several minutes, and could only rouse himself when his aides urged him to get back to his plane. He then invaded a country that wasn't even a threat to us, and destroyed it completely. He wouldn't even ask his rich buddies to pay more taxes to help the soldiers injured in that unnecessary war. When faced with a daunting task and the real threat of extinction for himself and his country, Washington chose to use humanity and honor as the way to victory. Bush whined about a problem that would barely have registered as a blip on Washington's trouble meter, claiming through his sycophants that it was an unprecedented threat of titanic proportions, and chose cruelty and mendacity as his chief weapons. Washington's defining character traits were courage, wisdom, and compassion. Bush's are fecklessness, laziness, and arrogance.

If Bush has even one tenth of the wisdom Washington had, he'll never bring up the subject again.

UPDATE: Michael J.W. Stickings has an interesting take on Bush's speech.

UPDATE: Gary Kamiya asks Is There Life After Bush? (subscription or watching an ad required). To which I reply "I certainly hope so".



Glad that spurred you to write this. This whole tack has been ignored by everyone who could have made this point.

Cujo359 said...

Thanks, CB. I suspect that others just didn't want to stoop to making the obvious observations. Thankfully, I have no such compunctions.

Mary said...

I don't know that many of them could make it the way you did Cujo. Amen on Sherrod Brown and it's funny - I'm not a big Hillary fan either, but I thought that was one of her better moments. Great post - if your compunctions come looking for you, HIDE.