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THE CONSOLATION OF HISTORY March 26, 2005

Posted by wmmbb in Human Rights, Philosophy.
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What happened in the past cannot change what is happening now. However, it can provide a comparison, so we see clearly the gang that is running things now does not represent the best of the American mind and heart.

In his column in the New York Times, Thomas L Friedman reviews “Washington’s Crossing” by David Hackett Fischer. To quote at length:

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.”

Power is seen by some, as the supreme object in itself, but that never is the case. What matters and what lasts is what is done with the opportunity and the responsibility it entails. Mediocre people remain so, regardless of how much power they might appear to exercise. One suspects there will come a time to clear out the stables.

Postscript::

This title was not simply seized out of the ether. The reference, perhaps oblique, is to Boethius, who wrote Consolation of Philosphy while awaiting sentence for treason. At this time, the sixth century, the Roman Empire is visiblly vanishing before people’s eyes, although the idea lives on for centures. You know how it is. What may be an obvious reference for me, may not be for others. And we can link, which means I get to know how suferficial my knowledge is.

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