New York Times
March 24, 2005
Of all the stories about the abuse of prisoners of war by American soldiers and C.I.A. agents, surely none was more troubling and important than the March 16 report by my Times colleagues Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt that at least 26 prisoners have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 - in what Army and Navy investigators have concluded or suspect were acts of criminal homicide.
You have to stop and think about this: We killed 26 of our prisoners of war. In 18 cases, people have been recommended for prosecution or action by their supervising agencies, and eight other cases are still under investigation. That is simply appalling. Only one of the deaths occurred at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, reported Jehl and Schmitt - "showing how broadly the most violent abuses extended beyond those prison walls and contradicting early impressions that the wrongdoing was confined to a handful of members of the military police on the prison's night shift."
Yes, I know war is hell and ugliness abounds in every corner. I also understand that in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, we are up against a vicious enemy, which, if it had the power, would do great harm to our country. You do not deal with such people with kid gloves. But killing prisoners of war, presumably in the act of torture, is an inexcusable outrage. The fact that Congress has just shrugged this off, and no senior official or officer has been fired, is a travesty. This administration is for "ownership" of everything except responsibility.
President Bush just appointed Karen Hughes, his former media adviser, to head up yet another U.S. campaign to improve America's image in the Arab world. I have a suggestion: Just find out who were the cabinet, C.I.A. and military officers on whose watch these 26 homicides occurred and fire them. That will do more to improve America's image in the Arab-Muslim world than any ad campaign, which will be useless if this sort of prisoner abuse is shrugged off. Republicans in Congress went into overdrive to protect the sanctity of Terri Schiavo's life. But they were mute when it came to the sanctity of life for prisoners in our custody. Such hypocrisy is not going to win any P.R. battles.
By coincidence, while following this prisoner abuse story, I've been reading "Washington's Crossing," the outstanding book by the Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer about how George Washington and his troops rescued the American Revolution after British forces and German Hessian mercenaries had routed them in the early battles around New Jersey.
What is particularly moving is one of Mr. Fischer's concluding sections, "An American Way of War," in which he contrasts how Washington dealt with prisoners of war with how the British and Hessian forces did: "According to the 'the laws' of European war, quarter was the privilege of being allowed to surrender and to become a prisoner. By custom and tradition, soldiers in Europe believed that they had a right to extend quarter or deny it. ... In these 'laws of war,' no captive had an inalienable right to be taken prisoner, or even to life itself."
American attitudes were very different. "With some exceptions, American leaders believed that quarter should be extended to all combatants as a matter of right. ... Americans were outraged when quarter was denied to their soldiers." In one egregious incident, at the battle at Drake's Farm, British troops murdered all seven of Washington's soldiers who had surrendered, crushing their brains with muskets.
"The Americans recovered the mutilated corpses and were shocked," wrote Mr. Fischer. The British commander simply denied responsibility. "The words of the British commander, as much as the acts of his men," wrote Mr. Fischer, "reinforced the American resolve to run their own war in a different spirit. ... Washington ordered that Hessian captives would be treated as human beings with the same rights of humanity for which Americans were striving. The Hessians ... were amazed to be treated with decency and even kindness. At first they could not understand it." The same policy was extended to British prisoners.
In concluding his book, Mr. Fischer wrote lines that President Bush would do well to ponder: George Washington and the American soldiers and civilians fighting alongside him in the New Jersey campaign not only reversed the momentum of a bitter war, but they did so by choosing "a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution. They set a high example, and we have much to learn from them."