British didn't think "rebel" colonists were soldiers, either

Thursday, July 06, 2006 at 12:30 PM

"Illegal combatants" is the term commonly used to describe those "detainees" in the custody of the U.S. and our allies whom we have determined are not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions.

Two and a quarter centuries ago, the British apparently made the exact same decision as to the American colonists in open rebellion against the Crown, and treated American prisoners about as abysmally as the detainees in the war on terror are being treated.

A piece by Edwin G. Burrows in Monday's NY Times, (registration required) titled Devil's Island, New York details the treatment that American prisoners received from the British during the Revolutionary War.

Of the "at least" 18,500 American prisoners, Burrows, a History Professor from Brooklyn College, finds a total of 12,000 or more deaths "consistent with the available evidence."  The 12,000, by the way, as almost twice the number estimated to have died in battle: 6,800.  The 12,000 is almost 75% of the estimated grand total of 16,800 who dies in battle, from wounds received in battle, and disease combined.

The theory behind the British refusal to recognize the rebels as soldiers?  treating American rebels as "soldiers," and American prisoners as "prisoners of war," would have "amounted to defacto recognition of American Independence."

A pretty good illustration of a phenomenon that continues to this day: most agreements on the conduct of war, including the Geneva Conventions, pretty much require that you be a member of the military of an officially recognized nation state in order to be entitled to treatment as a prisoner of war.

Want to rebel against the current government of a nation state?  We can't stop you, but don't for one minute think that we will ever recognize your actions as being a "war," or you as being a "soldier."

After all, agreements on the conduct of war are, by definition, signed by nations.  Nations, by definition, have no love for people and groups that may try to overthrow them.  It doesn't matter how oppressive the nation's existing government may be, the world at large does not recognize the right of the citizenry to rise up against it.

Which is pretty odd, at least in the case of America, because the right to "rise up" is memorialized in our Declaration of Independence.  One of the truths held to be "self-evident" in that document is that:

whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Well, maybe that means change by peaceful means, huh?  Surely the founding fathers didn't envision violent rebellions, did they?

Of course they did, fool, they were embarking on just such a thing.  Hence the Declaration also states:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.

It's just that you can't expect an existing government, whether the U.S. or any other, to recognize the legitimacy of that effort.  First you have to win in your rebellion, thereby becoming the officially recognized nation state.  Once you do that, you're entitled to the same preference as your tyrannical predecessor was accorded.

The exception, of course, is when you are a nation which is unhappy with another nation, and you want to support those rebelling against that other nation.  So France supported the American revolutionaries.  And the U.S. supported the Afghan rebels against an Afghan government we deemed illegitimate (or the right wing Nicaraguan rebels against the Sandanista regime).  Like Cuba supported various leftists rebels in Africa.

The point here?  Just deploring the inability of humankind to rise above petty self-interest, to recognize that a policy of humane, decent treatment of all actually does work to the benefit of all.  Just deploring the fact that it takes so little for a victim to become a victimizer, as history teaches us over and over and over and over and over....

Just deploring the fact that the "tough, give no quarter" approach to rebellions of all kind has rarely worked (ask the French), especially when the rebellion is by indigenous people against what they perceive to be an occupying power.