Late last month, just a day after the anniversary of George Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware and the battle of Trenton, more details and video were revealed about the alleged war crimes of Navy SEAL platoon chief Edward Gallagher. Gallagher was accused of stabbing to death a defenseless wounded teenager in Mosul, Iraq, then ordering his platoon to pose for photos with the body. In shocking recorded testimony Seal team members described the killing of the prisoner and accused Gallagher of enjoying killing for killing’s sake, and making little or no distinction between taking the lives of combatants or civilians.
Nevertheless, in a highly controversial act, taken at the urging of Fox news and other conservative commentators, President Donald Trump overruled the military’s investigations and disciplinary procedures, pardoned Gallagher and several others, and ordered that Gallagher’s rank be fully restored. That act ultimately led to the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy.
Most readers are likely familiar with those events, but why discuss a pardon for war crimes committed in 2017 in the context of a 1776 battle from the revolutionary war?
Because the values and actions of the nation’s first commander and chief stand in stark contrast to the current holder of that position and to the conduct of the men he pardoned.
David Hacket Fischer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Washington’s Crossing” tells not only the precarious events of the daring Christmas night crossing, it also emphasizes how George Washington and the Continental Congress insisted on “The Policy of Humanity” to guide how enemy combatants were to be treated.
Fischer writes, “In 1776, American leaders believed that 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.” “In Congress and the army, American leaders resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with a respect for human rights, even of the enemy.” In other words, true patriots do not commit or condone war crimes.
Lest it be suggested that Washington’s was a different time and our enemies today are uniquely inhumane, consider the brutality of certain British and Hessian soldiers toward our troops and civilians. Fischer quotes a British Colonel who wrote in 1778:
“Wherever our armies have marched, wherever they have encamped during the last campaign, every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrecoverable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measure will be able to eradicate.”
In another example, Fischer describes how British troops treated wounded Americans who attempted to surrender: They “dashed out their brains with their muskets and ran them through with their bayonets, made them like sieves.”
While some Americans understandably wanted (then as now) to take an eye for an eye and repay such treatment with equal measure, and while there were some examples of retribution and cruelty, for the most part, and especially for Washington, the reverse held true.
Following the battle of Trenton, Washington insisted that captive Hessians be treated with humanity. He extended the same decency to British prisoners from the Battle of Princeton, instructing his officers to, “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.”
Thanks to Trump, the world can now make precisely that complaint, and it is we who ultimately risk “planting an irrecoverable hatred” wherever we go.
There is no doubt that war is hell and that at some point almost anyone can crack and do things they should not. And there is no doubt that the actions of al-Qaida and ISIS have been horrific. But the vast majority of American fighting men and women conduct themselves with extraordinary professionalism and humanity even in the most difficult of circumstances.
General Washington had certainly seen his share of combat and killing, yet he did not condone or excuse inhumane treatment of the enemy. Against all odds, and notwithstanding the atrocities of his adversaries, Washington won. What is more, he won in a way that honored and embodied the principles for which he fought and upon which this nation was founded.
With Trump’s pardons, that tradition, our national reputation, and the safety of our soldiers and civilians, are in greater jeopardy today.