In Concord, The Minuteman—Unlawful Patriot?

This is the third in my series of postings capturing my thoughts and reflections from my frequent visits to the Old North Bridge in Concord, the site to which I most often go to pray and meditate these last half dozen years. The course of this series has followed my usual path through the site. In the first, I started where each visit begins and ends, at the graves of the two British soldiers. In the second, I proceeded to the obelisk and contemplated the historic parallels between their mission to Concord and our invasion of Iraq. In this installment we proceed across the bridge to the monument that was the reason for my visit on September 12, 2001, the first time I came to the site explicitly to pray.

Minuteman at DuskToday, we visit the Concord Minuteman. My prayer on September 12 was one of thanksgiving as well as one of mourning and remembrance. It seemed clear to me that just as the Minutemen defended their homes and neighbors in Colonial America, a number of the passengers of Flight 93 constituted the Militia in 2001. The details were sketchy, but it seemed clear from the reports of phone calls from the passengers that a group of men and women had gathered, determined that the hijackers had to be stopped from using their plane as a weapon, and charged the cockpit.

I came here to honor them, and their predecessors of the last 3 centuries, free citizens, volunteers who have stood to defend our Republic and Commonwealth. A few weeks later, in early October, I came here to pray before writing an essay entitled "9-11: America Victorious", in which I protested the portrayal of 9-11 as an American failure. This angered me because it gives too little credit to patriots like Beamer, Bingham, Burnett, and Glick who exemplify the Minuteman spirit.

In all the times that I have discussed this subject at the foot of the Minuteman statue, never has anyone disagreed with my contention that the Flight 93 heroes are the modern versions of Isaac Davis, and his fellows. Some have been surprised that they hadn't thought of it that way before, but none have taken issue.

Not so my other observation. You see, the Minuteman as portrayed in Daniel Chester French's statue is clearly an Unlawful Combatant, or more correctly, he is not in terms of the Geneva Conventions, a "Lawful Combatant". According to Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention, in order to qualify as a Prisoner of War (a Lawful Combatant), one must fulfill the following requirements:

  1. That of being commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;
  2. That of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance;
  3. That of carrying arms openly;
  4. That of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

The colonial militias at the time of the Battle of Concord wore no uniforms, and displayed no fixed distinctive sign, though some did wear war paint and others cockades, but these were more designation of rank than of allegiance. It can also be argued that they did not conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. Certainly it was so argued at the time. One of the fallen British soldiers at the North Bridge was described by a fellow as appearing to have been scalped. The militia fired from cover, retreated into civilian houses and blended into the civilian populace. There is reason to believe that the cannons that the Governor was looking for in Concord were stolen from the British in Worcester. In the months leading up to the Battle of Concord, the militia had been used to intimidate the Governor's appointed judges, and so on.

Please, dear reader, understand that I do not say these things to disparage the Minutemen or the militias in general. You will be hard pressed to find someone more proud of the history or citizens of the Commonwealth or the Republic. I vehemently support the revolutionaries and insurgents who were our founding fathers. They were free men who fought for Liberty and for us, their descendants. They founded one of, if not the, greatest countries ever to grace the pages of history.

Rather, I bring these things up because I am critical of the Geneva Conventions and even more so of our nation's relationship to them. You see, in direct contradiction of the policies and opinions of the current administration, I hold that the Geneva Conventions do not cover enough people, rather than too many. They are not quaint, should not be abandoned or narrowed. The should be expanded. As they stand they would not cover the very men who fought to create our country. They would not cover the farmer who sets aside his plow to take up his rifle.

Ah, but you say, what of paragraph 6? (At least those of you facile with GCIII Article 4, Section A.) What of

  1. Inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces, without having had time to form themselves into regular armed units, provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war.

We were, however an occupied territory, a colony. Recall, if you will, that what had the Colonists up in arms (literally)—gathering the cannons, muskets and ammunition that Governor Gage sent his troops to find and confiscate were the "Intolerable Acts", including the Quartering Act, the reason that that the framers felt it was necessary to include in the Constitution the prohibition that

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Also, we had plenty of time. We had organized militias for more than a century. We did not "spontaneously take up arms". We chose the path of irregular militias rather than regular armies. No, paragraph 6 is not for us.

I'm no lawyer, especially not one versed in international law, so there may be something that I have overlooked, some way in which one might argue that the colonial militiamen might be covered by GCIII and GCIV, but at best, the matter is unclear. And so, if we were to be true to the history of our nation, we would be pressing the international community to extend the coverage of the Geneva Conventions, and not as the current administration has done, worked to restrict that coverage.

This country was founded by insurgents, by free men who banded together for self protection who believed that the government was "of, by and for the people", that it takes its legitimacy from the will and the consent of the governed. We reject monarchy based on divine right and the subordination of the people to the state. The restrictions in the Geneva Conventions are based on the premise that only a state may raise an army, that fighters who are part of a recognized army fielded by a legitimate state should be protected. Individuals who fight for their own liberty, for the defense of their neighbors without state blessing are not as valued and protected. Unlawful Combatants. Insurgents and other non-state sponsored individuals are not protected. This should not be surprising as the Geneva Conventions are agreements between states.

It is perfectly understandable, but in terms of what happened on April 19, 1775, and the years that followed it, of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutions of the United States and of the several Sates, it is not very American. It is very Bush, however. The current administration believes very much in rule by a strong individual, a Commander in Chief who is the sole decider in a Unified Executive. They have advanced political theories that dismiss individual liberty for the good of the State and the nation. They have sought to limit the number of people protected by the Geneva Conventions, and by our laws. For them, States are more important than individuals, rights are granted to citizens by the state rather than the other way around, and of course all power in the state is wielded by the sole supervisor of the unitary executive.

The lesson of Isaac Davis, the Acton Minuteman immortalized in the Concord Minuteman statue is that the farmer, the gunsmith, the man who was convinced that if he took up arms he would die, takes up arms because it is the right thing to do, because a patriot protects his neighbor's town from being burned by an occupying army seeking to disarm honest farmers. Here is not a soldier, not a lawful combatant, but a gunsmith, a farmer, a free man, chosen by the common consent of his fellows, to lead the first charge.

This is America.

But as ever, don't believe me. Read the history of the Battle of Concord and the Intolerable Acts. Read of the life of Isaac Davis, and the owl he believed foretold his death but which did not hold him back. Read the story of Mark Bingham, the gay patriot from San Francisco and the words of his mother, Alice Hoglan regarding the ground that is hallowed by the bones of her son and the terrorists he died fighting. Decide for yourself what the memorials in Concord mean at their heart, what it means to honor the enemy dead, what it means to live in a Commonwealth and a Republic founded by insurgents, rebels and citizen soldiers.

Be a free voice.
Be Liberty's voice.
Cry, "Freedom!"

Vox Libertas