Last week the U.S. government released a transcript of its extralegal proceedings at Guantanamo Bay determining that (“whether” seems to give too much credit to all concerned) Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is an “enemy combatant.” According to the censored document, Mohammed took responsibility for several murderous attacks and a lot of vague “plans,” and apparently mentioned being tortured in U.S. custody. He then made a rambling statement, made even harder to follow by the language barrier and possible transcription problems. Among other things, he said that some of the U.S.A.’s “enemy combatants” were actually prisoners of the Taliban regime, suspected of having been sent (by Saudi Arabia?) to assassinate Osama bin Laden.
In that statement, Mohammed also twice drew an analogy between himself and Gen. George Washington:
I consider myself, for what you are doing, a religious thing as you consider us fundamentalist. So, we derive from religious leading [reading?] that we consider we and George Washington doing same thing. As consider George Washington as hero. Muslims many of them are considering Usama bin Laden. He is doing same thing. He is just fighting. He needs his independence. . . .(Full transcript downloadable from the Pitt Law School.)
If now George Washington. If now we were living in the Revolutionary War and George Washington he being arrested through Britain. For sure he, they would consider him enemy combatant. But American they consider him hero. This right the any Revolutionary War they will be as George Washington or Britain.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a 1986 graduate of North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, and thus familiar with the basics of U.S. culture. It’s no surprise that he would invoke the name of George Washington, who looms so large in our history and heritage. But his analogy fails on two levels.
First, George Washington didn’t lead attacks on civilian populations, as Mohammed admitted to making his main effort (and expressed regret for, somewhat late). Because of prevailing military customs, and because he was fighting on his own ground, Washington usually sought to minimize civilian casualties and suffering. Although a pro-American terrorist operated in Britain during the war, neither Washington nor the Continental Congress knew about him.
The major exception to this pattern when Washington approved of campaigns against Iroquois allies of the British. When Native American and European-American armies fought, there was a conflict of competing military customs as well, with civilians targeted for capture and death. Furthermore, the U.S. army did want to push the native population from the lands west of Albany. But even then Washington’s orders targeted settlements, not populations, and ordered civilians to be taken alive:
The immediate objects are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.These campaigns might have been the source of Washington’s Seneca nickname “Town Destroyer,” or might simply have reinforced the ominous meaning of that name for Native Americans. But Washington did not seek to maximize the civilian death toll.
Mohammed’s second historical lapse is that if the British military had captured Washington during the war, the best evidence is that they wouldn’t have treated him as an “enemy combatant” or the eighteenth-century equivalent. They wouldn’t have cut him off from the customary protections of law. They wouldn’t have tortured him. In fact, the best evidence suggests the military would have treated the captured general rather well.
The British military did capture some U.S. generals during the Revolutionary War: Gen. Charles Lee in New Jersey, Gen. Benjamin Lincoln in Charleston, perhaps others I don’t recall. And the British treated those men as prisoners of war, eventually releasing them in prisoner exchanges. Similarly, the American forces captured British generals: Gen. John Burgoyne after Saratoga, Gen. Cornwallis at Yorktown. They, too, were treated as prisoners of war. Only men captured in the act of spying or sabotage while in civilian dress were subject to military trial and execution.
In fact, given the society’s deference to gentlemen—and only gentlemen could become generals—captured commanders were treated far better than ordinary soldiers. Americans complained for decades after the war about the plight of P.O.W.’s on the prison ships anchored off Brooklyn, and Britain resented the U.S. decision not to release Burgoyne’s “Convention Army” as initially promised. Had the British captured Washington, they might have tried him for treason, but they would certainly not have tortured him or come up with a new categorization like “enemy combatant” to keep him out of the legal system.
In sum, Mohammed’s statement was historically inaccurate in two ways: the current U.S. administration has treated prisoners worse than the British government during the Revolutionary War, and Mohammed admitted to behaving far worse than George Washington.