A Tale of Two Georges

02/19/2007 01:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause... for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country."

- George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775

On February 22, HBO premieres Rory Kennedy's documentary The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. The date is George Washington's birthday. There could be no more appropriate date to launch this documentary, because the experience of Abu Ghraib presents a direct challenge to the legacy of the greatest of America's Founding Fathers.

Before America had a Constitution, a Bill of Rights or a Congress - before the institution of the Presidency - it had its first surviving institution, which was the Army. And its first commander-in-chief - the only one to bear that title without simultaneously being president - was the great militia veteran of the French and Indian War, a man whose experience in warfare towered over others, George Washington.

From the outset of their confrontation with the British monarchy, the Americans were labeled as traitors and insurgents. They were denied the status of honorable soldiers in arms and were treated shamefully. Even as Washington issued the order quoted at the outset, he knew that all 31 of the prisoners taken by the British at Bunker Hill had died in captivity, many under unsettling circumstances. Of the 2,607 Americans taken prisoner at the capitulation of Ft Washington, all but 800 had died in captivity by 1778. The continental press was filled with accounts of the brutal and inhuman treatment of Americans taken by the British throughout this period.

Against a loud public outcry of "eye for an eye," George Washington stood fast. He made it a point of fundamental honor (and that was his word) that the Americans would not only hold dearly to the laws of war, they would define a new law of war that reflected the humanitarian principles for which the new Republic had risen. These principles required respect for the dignity and worth of every human being engaged in the conduct of the war, whether in the American cause or that of the nation's oppressor. They also required respect for the religion and cultural values of foreign peoples. He wrote, "While we are contending for our own liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to Him only in this case are they answerable."

Following the Battle of Trenton in 1776, Washington set firm rules for the treatment of prisoners in American custody. "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 who have fallen into their hands," he wrote. In all respects the prisoners were to be treated no worse than American soldiers; and in some respects, better. Through this approach, Washington sought to shame his British adversaries, and to demonstrate the moral superiority of the American cause. He also anticipated that the prisoners, treated with such attention and care, would reconsider their loyalties by the end of the war and embrace the American cause (his expectation was fulfilled - nearly all of the surviving prisoners of Trenton, for instance, settled in America and attained citizenship, many after US military service). But Washington makes clear that he took this approach in the end because of his experience in the wilderness, and the lesson he learned there: soldiers who mistreated prisoners, who took up cruel practices, were bad and unruly soldiers - the discipline and morale of the entire fighting force was undermined by such conduct. For Washington, the issues were clear on both a moral and practical level, and his guidance was given with firm conviction.

Washington's rules on the treatment of prisoners were doctrine of the United States Army for 227 years. From Washington's perspective, they were not marginal matters. Rather, they defined the United States in relationship to the rest of the world. As David Hackett Fischer writes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Washington's Crossing: "In a desperate struggle [he] found a way to defeat a formidable enemy... [He] reversed the momentum of the war. [He] improvised a new way of war that grew into an American tradition. And [he] chose a policy of humanity that aligned the conduct of the war with the values of the Revolution."

But early in 2002, a later George W, one who knew no military service, decided he knew better than the Founding Father. The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib makes clear that what transpired in that notorious Iraqi prison was not the misdoings of a few "rotten apples," but rather the foreseeable consequence of policies shaped at the highest levels of the Bush Administration. We should keep in mind that Abu Ghraib itself contained abuse that was mild compared with incidents that occurred elsewhere, including more than one hundred deaths in detention - a significant portion of which are linked to torture.

Venting at the constraints of international law, which they deemed quaint and outmoded, and seemingly ignorant of the proud American tradition behind that law, policymakers like Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales were determined to dabble in what Vice President Cheney called the "dark side." The consequences of this gravely mistaken departure from America's foundational values have been exactly what Washington foresaw in his charge of September 1775: shame, disgrace and ruin.

We should celebrate George Washington's birthday this Thursday by remembering the man and the values for which he stood. And we should redouble our efforts to restore that message of fundamental decency with which our nation came into being. While Congress took an important step forward with the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, it was caught by White House trickery the following year in the Military Commissions Act, which has stripped away the writ of habeas corpus, and thus left the Administration unaccountable for the mistreatment of prisoners. If we are to purge this nation of the shame of Abu Ghraib, habeas corpus must be restored, and offenders must be held to account.