David Hackett Fischer's new history, Washington's Crossing, affords a sorrowful comparison between the first George W, who crossed the Delaware, and the second, whose closest exploit was to cross the Tigris to be filmed serving a fake turkey to the troops.
Lurid accounts of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the secret detention and mental destruction of men suspected of being enemies of the United States have riveted much of the rest of the world. They are a big source of America's crumbling image as the exemplar of human rights.
The Geneva Conventions, which regulate the treatment of prisoners of war, is considered "quaint" and outmoded by the Bush administration. That is the famous description in a policy memo passed through the president's lawyer, Alberto Gonzalez, now his nominee to replace John Ashcroft as attorney general. It authorized mental and physical torture and death threats as long as death was not imminent and the pain did not reach that which accompanies organ failure.
America is now facing a different, more brutal and immoral enemy than nations ever faced before, the administration says. The old civil standards just won't keep nations safe from the religious extremists who will kill and blow themselves up to serve Allah. The International Committee of the Red Cross, Human Rights Watch, and the other bleeding-heart humanitarian groups that used to file nasty reports on communist regimes, Iraq, or Latin American tyrants don't understand that.
But, you see, all of this human-rights stuff started with the United States. Actually, it began with General Washington, who was sickened by the systematic torture of captive Revolutionary soldiers. They were brutalized, shot, beheaded, quartered, and their corpses mutilated by British troops and Hessian mercenaries who, as combatants nearly always do in war, had come to see their foes as subhuman. By contemporary accounts they make Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's bloodthirsty men in Iraq look halfway humane.
Washington had reports of American militiamen tied to trees and bayoneted or, after being brutalized, lined up by the scores and shot through the head. On November 16, 1776, peering across the river from the Jersey Palisades with his telescope, Washington watched as many of the 2,800 Americans killed in the battle for New York were put to the sword after surrendering. He turned aside and began to sob, according to aides, "with the tenderness of a child."
Washington vowed that Americans would be different and he ordered that all prisoners be treated humanely. He issued a broadside that prisoners should be treated humanely and not as enemies.
After the battle of Princeton, Washington ordered one of his officers to take charge of 211 British privates. "Treat them with humanity," he directed, "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. Provide everything necessary for them on the road."
That became the policy of the Revolution and of the new nation, articulated most eloquently by John Adams. The accounts of British barbarities toward prisoners "harrow me beyond description," he wrote. "Piety, humanity, honesty" would be forever U.S. policy. War was to be conducted with humanity and consideration for individual rights, in accordance with the values of the American Revolution itself.
As Fischer says in the closing words of Washington's Crossing: "Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn't so, and never was . Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit -- and so are we." •
Ernest Dumas is a columnist for the Arkansas Times, where a somewhat different version of this essay first appeared.