Los Angeles Times
December 17, 2005
By Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR. is an environmental lawyer and a professor
at Pace University Law School.
IT IS NICE THAT the Bush administration has finally been pressured
into backing a ban on cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners.
But what remains shocking about this embarrassing and distasteful
national debate is that we had to have it at all. This administration's
newfound enthusiasm for torture has not only damaged our international
reputation, it has shattered one of our proudest American traditions.
Every schoolchild knows that Gen. George Washington made extraordinary
efforts to protect America's civilian population from the ravages
of war. Fewer Americans know 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.
"In 1776," wrote historian David Hackett Fischer in "Washington's Crossing," "American
leaders believed it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in
a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles
of their cause. One of their greatest achievements … was to manage the
war in a manner that was true to the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American
The fact that the patriots refused to abandon these principles,
even in the dark times when the war seemed lost, when the enemy
controlled our cities and our ragged army was barefoot and
starving, credits the character of Washington and the founding
fathers and puts to shame the conduct of America's present
Fischer writes that leaders in both the Continental Congress
and the Continental Army resolved that the War of Independence
would be conducted with a respect for human rights. This was
all the more extraordinary because these courtesies were not
reciprocated by King George's armies. Indeed, the British conducted
a deliberate campaign of atrocities against American soldiers
and civilians. While Americans extended quarter to combatants
as a matter of right and treated their prisoners with humanity,
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 decided to behave differently. After capturing 1,000
Hessians in the Battle of Trenton, he ordered that enemy prisoners
be treated with the same rights for which our young nation
was fighting. In an order covering prisoners taken in the Battle
of Princeton, Washington wrote: "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…. Provide everything necessary
for them on the road."
John Adams argued that humane treatment of prisoners and deep
concern for civilian populations not only reflected the American
Revolution's highest ideals, they were a moral and strategic
requirement. His thoughts on the subject, expressed in a 1777
letter to his wife, might make a profitable read for Dick Cheney
and Donald Rumsfeld as we endeavor to win hearts and minds
in Iraq. Adams wrote: "I know of no policy, God is my witness,
but this — Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy.
Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again.
But they won't prevail against America, in this Contest, because
I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed."
Even British military leaders involved in the atrocities recognized
their negative effects on the overall war effort. In 1778,
Col. Charles Stuart wrote to his father, the Earl of Bute: "Wherever
our armies have marched, wherever they have encamped, every
species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrevocable
hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measure will
be able to eradicate."
In the end, our founding fathers not only protected our national
values, they defeated a militarily superior enemy. Indeed,
it was their disciplined adherence to those values that helped
them win a hopeless struggle against the best soldiers in Europe.
In accordance with this proud American tradition, President
Lincoln instituted the first formal code of conduct for the
humane treatment of prisoners of war in 1863. Lincoln's order
forbade any form of torture or cruelty, and it became the model
for the 1929 Geneva Convention. Dwight Eisenhower made a point
to guarantee exemplary treatment to German POWs in World War
II, and Gen. Douglas McArthur ordered application of the Geneva
Convention during the Korean War, even though the U.S. was
not yet a signatory. In the Vietnam War, the United States
extended the convention's protection to Viet Cong prisoners
even though the law did not technically require it.
Today, our president is again challenged to align the conduct
of a war with the values of our nation. America's treatment
of its prisoners is a test of our faith in our country and
the character of our leaders.