Do Unto Others

Reviewed by Derek Leebaert
Sunday, January 4, 2009


The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War

By Edwin G. Burrows | Basic. 364 pp. $27.50


Liberated Body, Captive Mind: A World War II POW's Journey

By Norman Bussel | Pegasus. 310 pp. $24.95


The True Story of Vietnam's Final POW Rescue Mission -- and the Last Navy SEAL Killed in Country

By Kevin Dockery | Berkley Caliber. 294 pp. $25.95

The savagery of war has increased in tandem with the sense among democratic peoples that even enemy soldiers merit civilized treatment once they are at our mercy. First U.S. and British bombers incinerated Hamburg; then allied forces housed and fed the inferno's survivors. A ferocious "shock and awe" campaign destroyed Saddam Hussein's army in 2003, yet the American public was disgusted the following year at prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib. It's a contradiction central to the moral revolution underway since the Enlightenment. Long before the Geneva Conventions, President Lincoln's administration first codified U.S. rules of war to restrain excesses against civilians, insurgents and captives.

None of these three books about American soldiers in enemy hands deals directly with current events. But at the start of Forgotten Patriots, his pathbreaking examination of the treatment of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edwin G. Burrows notes: "I will not be sorry if readers find themselves thinking about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, about the evasion of habeas corpus, about official denials and cover-ups, about the arrogance and stupidity that can come with the exercise of great power."

Burrows's book is a landmark whose significance far outweighs recent, popular biographies of the Founding Fathers. His sparkling prose, meticulous research and surprising findings recast our understanding of how the new nation was brought forth. He shows that systematic British atrocities served only to mobilize the American insurgency and harden U.S. resistance. It was a moral Rubicon. Once the British had crossed it, there could be "no compromise, no turning back" in the fight for independence. The British thought that even to refer to Americans as prisoners of war would seem to concede the legitimacy of the rebels' Congress. So the British had to decide: Were captured Americans to be treated as POWs or as nonpersons to be handled with intimidating brutality? His Majesty's ministers bobbed and weaved around the question while insisting to an increasingly shocked Gen. George Washington and the pro-American opposition in London that prisoners in the colonies were receiving decent care and two-thirds of a redcoat's rations.

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