Why Obama's Right to Claim that Torturing Prisoners Is Un-American

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Mr. Burrows, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, is the author of Forgotten Patriots: The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revoutionary War (New York: Basic Books, 2008). Forgotten Patriots was awarded the 2009 Fraunces Tavern Museum Book Award.

President Obama has often asserted—most recently in his address at the National Archives—that the harsh interrogation of enemy prisoners is inconsistent with “our most fundamental values” and swept the U.S. dangerously “off course.” Judging by the American experience during the Revolutionary War, he got it right.

Between 1775 and 1783, it’s likely that the British detained as many as 30,000 American soldiers, seamen, and civilians in and around occupied New York City. Other than a comparative handful of paroled officers, the vast majority of prisoners found themselves under close confinement in an assortment of public and private buildings – the municipal almshouse and jail, a half-dozen churches, the classrooms of King’s College (now Columbia University), a couple of sugar houses, and one or two taverns. A dozen or more broken-down warships and troop transports, stripped of sails, masts, and other usable equipment, were likewise pressed into service as prisons. Eventually, these hulks would be anchored in Wallabout Bay, a shallow inlet on the Brooklyn side of the East River (remembered today as the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard).

We have little or no evidence that the British tortured American detainees, but conditions in the New York prisons can only be described as punitively cruel. Survivors reported dreadful overcrowding–twenty-plus inmates per room in the city jail, eight hundred in one of the churches, over eleven hundred in the steaming hold of the Jersey, most notorious of the Wallabout hulks. They never had enough to eat, and what they did have was barely edible. Their clothes were infested with ticks and lice. The water stank. The slop buckets and necessary tubs overflowed. Anyone lucky enough to escape the rampant typhus, dysentery, and smallpox eventually succumbed to the scurvy, which made their teeth fall out and their gums bleed incessantly. Those who got out alive told of comrades so hungry they ate their own shoes and clothes, of prison ships whose decks were slippery with excrement, of wagons rumbling through the cobblestone streets with corpses stacked like cordwood, of bodies flung carelessly into Wallabout Bay or hastily interred by the dozen on nearby beaches.

We’ll never know for sure how many of those 30,000 perished. The available evidence suggests that the overall mortality rate hovered between 60 and 70 percent. (By comparison, the mortality rate among Union Prisoners at Andersonville reportedly hovered around 35 percent. In the Korean War, it was about 33 percent.) A 60 percent mortality rate would mean an overall total of some 18,000 fatalities. That may not seem like a lot by contemporary standards, but remember that the population of the entire United States in 1780 was under 3 million people—less than half the size of New York City today. During the Revolutionary War, in other words, more Americans lost their lives in the prisons of New York or the prison ships of Brooklyn than anywhere else—between two and three times as many as those who died in combat.

I can think of at least two reasons why this gruesome story bears remembering. Both underscore the wisdom of President Obama’s refusal to countenance the abuse of prisoners.

First, the mistreatment of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War—replayed in excruciating detail by newspapers up and down the continent—was a public-relations disaster for the British that goes a long way to explaining why they eventually lost the hearts and minds of their former subjects. Benjamin Franklin, the American envoy in Paris, figured this out as early as 1777. “As to our submitting again to the Government of Britain,” he scolded David Hartley, “ ’tis vain to think of it. She has given us by her numberless Barbarities, in the Prosecution of the War, and in the Treatment of Prisoners . . . so deep an Impression of her Depravity, that we can never again trust her in the Management of our Affairs, and Interest.” Then as now, counter-insurgency wars aren’t won by behavior that makes the insurgents stronger, stiffens their resolve, and lets them occupy the moral high ground.

Second, what happened to American captives in New York prompted the United States to take the first steps toward the establishment of international rules for the humane treatment of prisoners of war. In 1785, Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams negotiated a treaty with Prussia that included provisions designed specifically “to prevent the destruction of prisoners of war.” Among other things, the parties stipulated that in the event of armed conflict between them, captives taken by either

. . . shall not be confined in dungeons, prison-ships, nor prisons, nor be put into irons, nor bound, nor otherwise restrained in the use of their limbs; that the officers shall be enlarged on their paroles within convenient districts, & have comfortable quarters, & the common men be disposed in cantonments, open & extensive enough for air & exercise, and lodged in barracks as roomy & good as are provided by the party in whose power they are for their own troops; that the officers shall also be daily furnished by the party in whose power they are, with as many rations; & of the same articles & quality as are allowed by them, either in kind or by commutation, to officers of equal rank in their own army; & all others shall be daily furnished by them with such ration as they allow to a common soldier in their own service.

Never before had countries at peace with one another taken such a step. No matter that the conduct of their own countrymen had sometimes fallen well short of acceptable during the recent conflict with Britain; the three American negotiators understood that the new nation must pledge itself to treat future prisoners of war with the decency and humanity never accorded them by the British—that what set it apart from the former mother country was only this commitment to basic human rights.

Times change, of course, and the world is a lot more complicated now. Still, it’s refreshing to have a president who understands the crassness and cynicism with which the Bush administration subverted principles as old as the country itself.

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Dale R Streeter - 5/30/2009

What is it with constant references "the Inquisition" as if it provides the indisputable and indefensible example of unjust government coercion?
As a medievalist, it irritates me when individuals calling themselves historians or at least persons interested in history are slipshod and anachronistic with evidence and use it merely because they believe such an accusation will stand without reproach.

First, read last week's post by Liam Brockey on the Inquisition and its unsuitability in the modern context. There are countless examples in modern times that serve this argument better: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Che, Pinochet, Pol Pot; the list is endless.
Second, there was no one "inquisition;" there were several, and each was organized on the basis of a judicial inquest, but came under different authorities in practice. The only common threads were that each had to authorized initially by the papacy and they were considered to be the only way to safeguard society from heresy. Our modern concept of accepting diversity of religious belief and practice was not universally accepted by most Christian societies in the medieval and early modern period.
Third, the inquisition represented an improvement over civil prosecutions of the time; torture was used to elicit confessions, not to punish, it was scrupulously documented and great care was taken to safeguard the right of the accused to reconcile at any time and escape further examination. Granted these safeguards might not impress modern lawyers or advocates of judicial reform, but for the 13th century they were remarkable.
Fourth, the example of the inquisition as an arbitrary and cruel form of thought control and political conformity is overused and smacks of latent (or perhaps obvious) anti-Catholicism. The act of religious and political disloyalty that resulted in being burned at the stake in Catholic countries had the same result but a different method in Protestant ones, where the accused was tried for treason and then being hanged, drawn, and quartered, or broken on the wheel. From our vantage, these were barbarous times, but they perceived the threat as real and dangerous to society as a whole.

So, if one needs to find examples of injustice and cruelty to bolster one's argument about the inappropriateness of the (comparatively) mild abuse used by the CIA, look to Argentina under the Junta, Cuba under Castro, or either side in Northern Ireland for better examples.

Vernon Clayson - 5/27/2009

What world/enlightened republic does Mr. Besch live in? Homicide and crime are common events, barbarians are all around us and they are fellow citizens of our enlightened republic. Thinking and writing noble sentiments will not dissuade these barbarians as prison sentences and fines mean nothing to them.

Randll Reese Besch - 5/25/2009

It is done by barbarians for no good reason except because they like it. And they can get whatever confessions they want from their prisoners. It is a loathsome thing when done. It is more befitting despots and theocracies not an enlightened republic.

We are not protected by such atrocities in our name. It should end and those involved should be punished by our own laws that are against it. Nothing less or it will continue to fester and grow more common and even desired by whatever we will become. A dark empire where such things are expected and considered good. Like the Inquisition was for 400 years.

Vernon Clayson - 5/25/2009

The world is a cruel place and the feigned concern for the treatment of prisoners is politically driven. We are not the genteel and loving kind hearts we pretend to be, we kill one another at rates far above the world's average. While we weep for the tragic victims of so-called third world atrocities we bury our own dead from violence one at a time in greater number. It doesn't sound as bad that way as it does saying that tens of thousands of citizens of some African nation died over the same period of time. We are hardly a shining city on a hill, we are a dreary and dark cemetery filling with bodies from meaningless killings while our leaders tell the world we are the finest example of civilization in practice. Apparently the alleged torture of war criminals takes precedence over insuring the safety of our citizens, Obama is briefed on such things, is he briefed on the hundreds of homicides each week in our cities and towns?