Lessons on Iraq From a Founding Father

By Brian O'Malley
Saturday, March 1, 2008

What would George Washington do about Iraq? In a December Outlook essay, historian Joseph J. Ellis argued that it's not possible to theorize exact answers because the "gap between the founders' time and ours is non-negotiable, and any direct linkage between them and now is intellectually problematic." But Ellis also conceded that this position is "unacceptable to many of us, because it suggests that the past is an eternally lost world that has nothing to teach us."

History does hold lessons about today's issues, and this is clear when considering Iraq and U.S. conduct in the war against terrorism. Consider the 1775-76 invasion of Canada, America's first preemptive war, which ended just days before Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence.

On Sept. 14, 1775, Washington wrote two letters to Col. Benedict Arnold, who led an American force into Canada. Five of Washington's points for invasion merit particular attention.

¿ First, if the citizens don't want us there, don't go. Washington told Arnold, "You are by every means in your power to endeavour to discover the real sentiments of the Canadians towards our cause, and particularly as to this expedition; ever bearing in mind that if they are averse to it, and will not co-operate, or at least willingly acquiesce, it must fail of success. In this case you are by no means to prosecute the attempt."

The expense of starting the mission and the disappointment of not completing it, Washington wrote, "are not to be put in competition with the dangerous consequences which may ensue from irritating them against us."

¿ Second, the safety of American personnel depended on how they treated people. Washington wanted Arnold to "conciliate the affections" of the Canadian settlers and Indians and ordered Arnold to teach the soldiers and officers under his command "that not only the Good of their Country and their Honour, but their Safety depends upon the Treatment of these People."

¿ Third, proper treatment of prisoners was necessary. The prominent British parliamentarian William Pitt, who championed American grievances, had a son serving in Canada. John Pitt was never taken into American custody, but in the event that Pitt was captured, Washington warned Arnold, "You cannot err in paying too much Honour to the Son of so illustrious a Character, and so true a Friend to America."

This insistence on kind treatment extended beyond Pitt. Washington wrote, "Any other Prisoners who may fall into your Hands, you will treat with as much Humanity and kindness, as may be consistent with your own Safety and the publick Interest."

Washington told Arnold to restrain the Continental troops and their Indian allies "from all Acts of Cruelty and Insult, which will disgrace the American Arms, and irritate our Fellow Subjects against us."

¿ Fourth, any Americans who mistreated Canadians should be punished. "Should any American Soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any Canadian or Indian, in his Person or Property," Washington wrote, "I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary Punishment as the Enormity of the Crime may require." In an accompanying letter Washington added, "Should it extend to Death itself it will not be disproportional to its Guilt, at such a Time and in such a Cause."

¿ Fifth, respect the people's religion. "As the Contempt of the Religion of a Country by ridiculing any of its Ceremonies or affronting its Ministers or Votaries, has ever been deeply resented, you are to be particularly careful to restrain every Officer and Soldier from such Imprudence and Folly and to punish every Instance of it."

American ideals won immediate support from the Canadians, but American misconduct squandered it. Contrary to Washington's orders, some American commanders disrespected Canadians' religion, property and liberty.

Lamenting this American misconduct, Washington wrote to Gen. Philip Schuyler on April 19, 1776, "I am afraid proper measures have not been taken to conciliate their affections, but rather that they have been insulted and injured, than which nothing could have a greater tendency to ruin our cause in that country; for human nature is such that it will adhere to the side from whence the best treatment is received."

George Washington is still first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen. It's too bad he couldn't have been the first person we asked about how to proceed in Iraq.

The writer is an adjunct professor at Jones College in Jacksonville, Fla.

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