My wife, Gena, I and join everyone in Israel and around the world in rejoicing that (as of the time of this publication) 58 of the 239 hostages held by Hamas in tunnels underground in the Gaza Strip were released and returned safely into their loved ones' arms.
In particular, we were ecstatic that 4-year-old American Abigail Edan was among the hostages released Sunday. One can only imagine what that precious little girl endured (and will endure in the years ahead) after watching Hamas barbarians gun down both of her parents on Oct. 7.
(According to the Jerusalem Post, 21 children from 13 families were left without their parents on Oct. 7, either because they were murdered or kidnapped by Hamas. What type of demonic parasites do something like that to dozens of children, including babies?)
Nevertheless, we are so happy for all the released hostages and their families. However, tragically again, many of them are also now learning that many of their loved ones were also killed on Oct. 7. So, despite their release and freedom, they now have to suffer through more shock, extreme familial grief and PTSD, among other mental heartache.
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Our hearts and prayers continue for the remaining 180-plus precious human beings, hostages from 25 countries, who remain underground in Hamas tunnels. We also pray for their brokenhearted families, who were undoubtedly hoping their loved ones might be among those who were released but were not. Their trauma and suffering tragically continues, as they also are learning (like all of us) about the dark picture and harsh conditions of the hostages' captivity, which are now emerging.
The grave conditions surrounding the hostages' violent kidnappings, transports and captivity in those underground tunnels got me thinking about some reading I've recently done on the prisoners of war (POWs) during the Revolutionary War, how George Washington handled them, and what the U.S. might even possibly learn from him and other "hostage negotiators" back then.
Though I love history, I'm not a historian, so allow me to quote at length some key resources to understand the accuracy and complexities of Revolutionary POWs and exchanges.
If you didn't know, during the War for Independence, POWs were taken by both the British and Continental armies. On American soil, kidnapping was common (of soldiers and civilians), including failed attempts to kidnap George Washington – and those were outside the attempts to assassinate him!
The official website of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate explained, "During the American Revolution, thousands of soldiers, militiamen, and civilians were taken prisoner, and their presence strained the resources of the British and Continental forces alike. The situation of Patriot and Loyalist prisoners was complicated by their status as rebels and traitors, thus their treatment could be inconsistent and often quite severe. As in many early modern conflicts, the unsanitary conditions of rudimentary prison facilities caused far more deaths than actual combat.
"Prisoners captured on European battlefields historically faced a very uncertain fate. Ransom, slavery, starvation, disease, and even execution were all potential outcomes for captives until the early modern period. … The American Revolution complicated these accepted customs. From the British perspective, the conflict was an internal rebellion; therefore the standards of prisoner treatment in wars between sovereign European states did not apply. They denied captured Patriot soldiers and militiamen the official status of prisoners of war in the early years of the conflict. It was only after American forces captured significant numbers of British and Hessian soldiers and officers at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 that fear of retaliation compelled the British to accept the necessity of improving conditions for Patriot prisoners. As a point of honor, however, prisoner exchanges, known as cartels, remained ad hoc [or used for a special and immediate purpose without previous planning] and were carried out under the authority of commanding officers and not under the name of the Crown or Congress, lest it be construed that the British recognized American independence.
"After Washington's defeat at the Battle of Long Island in 1776 and his subsequent evacuation of New York, thousands of Continental troops and militia were taken prisoner and held in prison ships anchored offshore and in warehouses in the city.
"Philip Freneau was among the Americans held in the most notorious prison ship, the Jersey. He penned a widely distributed poem about his experiences in the cramped, vermin infested, and disease riddled prison ship, which enflamed popular opinion:
The various horrors of these hulks to tell
These Prison-ships where pain and sorrow dwell;
Where death in tenfold vengeance holds his reign,
And injur'd ghosts, in reason's ear complain;
This be my task – ungenerous Britons you,
Conspire to murder those you can't subdue
"Though estimates vary, between eight and eleven thousand American prisoners (or perhaps higher) died in British custody in New York. These deaths were not caused by a deliberate policy, but rather through poor or indifferent planning and care."
The U.S. National Park Service explained: "During the Revolutionary War, an estimated 20,000 Americans were held as prisoners of war and 8,500 died in captivity. Some were subsequently released as part of an exchange system between America and Great Britain. Many, however, were not that fortunate. Some were kept in British jails, but for many, life as a prisoner of war was spent in the damp, musty holds of vessels. These prison ships were anchored in Wallabout Bay (New York), Charleston Harbor (South Carolina) and St. Lucia (West Indies). For those who died, their bodies were tossed overboard, or taken ashore and buried in shallow graves. After the Revolution, although America was no longer at war, many American sailors became captives at the hands of the 'Barbary pirates' of North Africa and were used as slave labor until ransomed.
"Renewed hostilities with Great Britain in 1812 meant war and, consequently, prisoners of war. Initially, American POWs were once again kept in prison ships until 1813, when they were taken to England and held in prisons, such as the infamous Dartmoor. The stone walls of Dartmoor, located in Devonshire, enclosed 400 barracks and, according to prisoner of war Charles Andrews, 'death itself, with hopes of an hereafter, seemed less terrible than this gloomy prison.' In 1815, more than 5,000 prisoners of war left Dartmoor. At least 252 did not return to America, casualties of the hated prison. One of the most celebrated arts of this war was the composition of 'The Star Spangled Banner.' Francis Scott Key was aboard a British vessel in Baltimore harbor attempting to win the release of a prisoner of war when he penned the famous words. America's national anthem is the only one in the world written by a prisoner of war."
As has often been noted by historians, neither the British or Americans were prepared to handle the myriad of POWs and their captivity. Even during the Revolution, hundreds of American POWs were even transported across the Atlantic Ocean in grotesquely unsanitary environments on ships to be imprisoned in cells with even more grave conditions.
Another such infamous prison for Americans was the Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, which would have made modern Alcatraz seem like an all-inclusive resort.
The massive Edinburgh Castle, which still stands to this day and is visited by millions of visitors every year, "has been a place of security for centuries, used as a safe place to hold Royal treasures, artillery, archives – and even Prisoners of War. … Between 1757 and 1814, well over a thousand of prisoners [from many countries] were held in the labyrinth of vaults below Crown Square," as the official website stated.
"… many of [the POWS were] Americans fighting in the War of Independence. An early depiction of the 'Stars and Stripes' flag is scratched into a door. Many tried to escape. In 1811, 49 prisoners escaped through a hole in the defenses that is still visible today. All but one made it safely down Castle Rock, but were recaptured," as the website documents.
On the bright side of prisoner conditions and care in the Edinburgh Castle prison, the website explained: "There were separate latrines, exercise yards, and hammocks hung from the ceiling to provide bedding space.
"Each of the POWs received a daily allowance of 6d and rations of food. These rations included 2 pints of beer, bread, beef, cabbage, butter, and cheese (on Saturdays)."
On the bleak side of POW care and conditions, "A visit to the reconstructed prison vaults today provides a glimpse of the reality of their living conditions.
"Edinburgh Castle, exposed on its rocky outcrop, would have been a cold and draughty place to live. Worse than that, up to a thousand seamen were crammed into the vaults at a time. With no more than 1m2 [one meter or roughly 3ft. squared] per person conditions were cramped, dimly lit, stuffy, cold and damp.
"A report written by John Howard, prison reformer, in 1779 described the vaults as 'for the most part miserable holes, fit only for the reception of the worst malefactors … dark, long, and narrow, capable of admitting but little light and air.'"
Finally, "The living conditions were bad enough, but prisoners also had to face tedium and uncertainty. Though rules were in place for the exchange of prisoners between nations, here at Edinburgh Castle we were so far removed from the arena of war there were long delays in transferring POWs back home. A [5-year-old] drummer boy captured at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 was still being held at the castle six years later. Some died during their imprisonment."
The Mount Vernon website further explained Washington's personal involvement in American POW care and exchange: "George Washington played an active role in negotiations and disputes over the proper treatment of prisoners and was particularly sensitive to abuse and disrespect directed at his captured Continental officers. Especially early in the conflict, British and Hessian troops sometimes refused to acknowledge the rank of seemingly rustic American officers. In 1775, Washington personally warned General Thomas Gage about mistreating Continental prisoners, and reminded him that the 'Obligation arising from the Rights of Humanity, and claims of Rank are universally binding, and extensive,' adding the chilling warning 'except in case of Retaliation.'"
"In 1782, the British military negotiated a formal cartel for prisoner exchange with the Continental Army, with American officers recognized on equal terms with their British counterparts. The acceptance of Continental soldiers as legitimate prisoners of war was an important step towards Britain acknowledging American independence."
One thing is clear about POWs from every era and war in American history: their suffering changed them and a little bit of us all forever when we hear their stories.
Most of all, their perseverance in the face of adversity was beyond courageous. That's true for Revolutionary POWs. That's true also for today's POWs under the barbarians known as Hamas.
We need to keep those hostages at the heart of our prayers. We need to keep their freedom as the foremost goal of the whole world. We must save them. We must not let the enemy win.
Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor who wrote the internationally acclaimed memoir "Night," and died in 2016 at the age of 87, couldn't have said it better in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 10, 1986: "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe."
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