Donald Rumsfeld is no John Armstrong. Who? Armstrong was the secretary of war, under President Madison, from 1813 to 1814; he ended up shouldering much of the blame when British troops burned the White House. Madison asked for and received Armstrong’s resignation.
Nor is Secretary Rumsfeld any kind of John Eaton–secretary of war from 1829 to 1831, under President Jackson–who resigned when the wives of the other cabinet members snubbed his wife. And Secretary Rumsfeld is in no way a version of William Belknap, secretary of war from 1860 to 1876, during the troubled tenure of President Grant. Belknap was impeached for taking bribes in office, and resigned.
But I don’t mind the patter of little keyboards across the country as editorial writers and Democrats type-type-type their demands for Rumsfeld to resign. Like the rain, angry pronouncements fall on the just and the unjust alike. Somewhere in the line of command at the Abu Ghraib prison stands an unjust and extremely foolish official who condoned or encouraged the abuse of prisoners. The investigators will find that person, and he will not be Donald Rumsfeld. The New York Times has wondered aloud whether Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who arrived in Iraq last August after having command of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, may be the culprit, because he emphasized the need to interrogate prisoners. General Miller may be a tough-minded professional soldier, but somehow I doubt that he gave the nod to the young men and women who made a sport out of humiliating Iraqi prisoners.
American mistreatment of enemy combatants is not novel. On April 19, 1775, Brigadier General Hugh Percy led the ill-fated British excursion to Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in search of the arms that the colonial militia had been stockpiling. When the British Regulars retreated from the North Bridge at Concord under fire from the Minutemen led by Colonel Barrett, they left a wounded soldier behind. What happened next has been a matter of controversy for several centuries. The wounded British soldier attempted to get up, but was attacked by a young American with a small hatchet. Later, British Ensign Jeremy Lister came on the scene with several other troops and found the mutilated body of his comrade, still barely alive.
General Percy wrote to General Gage the next day, declaring that the rebels “scalped and cut off the ears of some of the wounded men who fell into their hands.” The British made much of this barbarity, as did some of the Loyalists. The rebels, however, flatly denied the incident, as did generations of American historians. The American response was to take depositions from militiamen, such as this:
We, the subscribers, of lawful age, testify and say, that we buried the dead bodies of the King’s troops that were killed at the North Bridge in Concord on the nineteenth day of April, 1775, where the action first began, and that neither of those persons were scalped nor their ears cut off, as has been represented.
Thomas Davis, Jun.
Notably, no one on the American side called for the resignation of Col. Barrett. The shot heard round the world was followed with the cover-up heard round the colonies.
Brown and Davis were shading the truth, perhaps parsing the meaning of “scalped” and reasoning that a piece of an ear is not a whole ear. What really happened? The young American with the hatchet was Ammi White. His act was witnessed by Reverend Emerson, from his house adjoining the bridge, and perhaps by others too. White was never charged or even publicly identified. The town of Concord, however, knew the truth, and later in life White acknowledged his guilt to a friend.
Though White probably hadn’t intended to scalp the British soldier or crop his ears, the description of his brutal attack on a wounded man stuck. Once one side is accused of atrocities, the other side may feel relieved of ordinary restraints. During the course of the war, several British generals, including Burgoyne, adopted a policy of paying Indians a bounty for each rebel scalp they took.
The terror unleashed by this policy–no other word really suffices–aroused Americans to furious reprisals against the tribes who allied to the British. The British policy failed in other ways too. In 1777, Jane McCrea, the 23-year-old fiancée of a loyalist officer, was scalped by Burgoyne’s Indian allies for the bounty. Loyalists were outraged, and when Burgoyne failed to get the Indians to turn over McCrea’s killer, the Loyalist movement in New York and New England began to lose face. Sticking with England was no guarantee of safety even from British allies.
War clearly intoxicates some men. They do things they would never have dreamt were in them. Some turn out to delight in cruelty toward the defeated and powerless. To say, as President Bush has, that this is not in the American character is to offer an anodyne view of who we Americans are. Ammi White was one of us, and we are no strangers to the sad perplexities of human nature that lead some ordinary people to do awful things. If a word can be said on behalf of the American character, it is that we have a collective conscience that abhors the worst in human nature.
That is a trait we need to hold dear, because the appalling inhumanity of some of our enemies in Iraq is potentially infectious. Nothing breeds contempt for an enemy like the knowledge of the enemy’s own cruelty. We need to face that psychological reality. Most of our soldiers possess the moral maturity to resist responding to Baathist thugs with Baathist thuggery, and know not to treat Iraqi gangsters the way Iraqi gangsters treat Iraqis. But some apparently don’t.
When Secretary Rumsfeld expresses his abhorrence at the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, I think he speaks from his heart. He is no General Burgoyne unleashing a reign of terror in a futile attempt to keep the loyalists loyal. Rumsfeld is a man of caustic certitudes, with little patience for excuses by his subordinates or the ideological bric-a-brac that many journalists mistake for ideas. I do wish that he possessed a finer sense of how to bring the rule of law to that blood-soaked anti-nation we call Iraq. But resign?
No, Rumsfeld does not deserve the fate of the incompetent John Armstrong, the weak-willed John Eaton, or the corrupt William Belknap. We need him to expatiate the sin of Ammi White, who came face to face with a fallen enemy and failed to see him as a fellow man.
–Peter Wood is the author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.