Yesterday, I heard a remarkable radio documentary on KUOW, my local NPR station. It was The Meaning of America, part of the Humankind series, produced by HumanMedia.org. The interviews with filmmaker Ken Burns, historian Jacob Needleman and philosopher Norman Cousins exemplify a deeply spiritual and powerful approach to the idea of American freedom.
But one portion of the program stood out in my mind due to its obvious relevance to our current quagmire in Iraq (too bad no one suggested Bush read this as he was devising his “strategy” to win the hearts and minds of average Iraqis). Norman Cousins reads George Washington’s September 15, 1775 letter to Benedict Arnold laying out instructions for the upcoming campaign to persuade Canadians to relinquish their neutrality and join the American side in the War. As you read excerpts from the letter, keep in mind not only how the U.S. military treats Iraqis but the attitude of evangelicals in this country to religions other than their own. It will almost make you weep at how penetrating was Washington’s understanding of the best way to pursue your cause with others who are not in accord with you (and how gross, insulting and barbaric are Bush’s views on the same subject). Furthermore, it will make you appreciate Washington’s deep and abiding tolerance for all human beings regardless of religion, ethnicity or nationality:
…The Success of this Enterprise, (under God) depends wholly upon the Spirit with which it is pushed, and the favorable Disposition of the Canadians and Indians.
observe the strictest Discipline and good Order, by no Means suffering any Inhabitant to be abused, or in any Manner injured, either in his Person or Property, punishing with exemplary Severity every Person who shall transgress, and making ample Compensation to the Party injured.
You are to endeavour on the other Hand to conciliate the affections of those People and such Indians as you may meet with by every Means in your Power, convincing them that we come, at the Request of many of their Principal People, not as Robbers or to make War upon them; but as the Friends and Supporters of their Liberties, as well as ours: And to give Efficacy to these Sentiments, you must carefully inculcate upon the Officers and Soldiers under your Command that not only the Good of their Country and their Honour, but their Safety depends upon the Treatment of these People.
Check every Idea, and crush in it’s earliest stage every attempt to plunder even those who are known to be Enemies to our Cause. It will create dreadful Apprehensions in our Friends, and when it is once begun, none can tell where it will stop. I, therefore again most expressly order, that it be discouraged and punished in every Instance without Distinction
Be very particular in restraining not only your own Troops, but the Indians from all Acts of Cruelty and Insult, which will disgrace the American Arms, and irritate our Fellow Subjects against us.
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. On the other Hand, as far as lays in your power, you are to protect and support the free Exercise of the Religion of the Country and the undisturbed Enjoyment of the rights of Conscience in religious Matters, with your utmost Influence and Authority.
Given under my Hand, at Head Quarters, Cambridge, this 14th Day of September one Thousand seven Hundred and seventy-five.
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