Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Torture: A National Guard officer responds to Krauthammer

Here is a note an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel I know sent to the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who didn’t respond: Mr. Krauthammer, I don’t usually make a point of responding to the talking-head proselytizers in my Sunday paper but your column prompted me to do so. I’ll make this simple. There are NO circumstances ...

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Here is a note an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel I know sent to the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who didn't respond:

Mr. Krauthammer,

Here is a note an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel I know sent to the columnist Charles Krauthammer, who didn’t respond:

Mr. Krauthammer,

I don’t usually make a point of responding to the talking-head proselytizers in my Sunday paper but your column prompted me to do so.

I’ll make this simple. There are NO circumstances under which torture is acceptable. Jack Bauer’s “24” makes for great TV but even in a ticking timebomb situation such behavior is inappropriate and illegal. Torture is counter to our moral code, a violation of the Geneva and Hague conventions to which we subscribe and perhaps least understood, but most significantly, counterproductive and ineffective. Nothing else really needs to be said, but if you want more details read on.

I have friends who have been to SERE and instructed SERE students and acted as interrogators. All agree that waterboarding and other such ‘enhanced’ techniques are good for training (in a strictly controlled environment) our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines on what to expect in captivity. They also agree that it is torture to anyone outside that training environment. Finally, they all agree that torture rarely results in actionable intelligence, as the victim is willing to say most anything to end the torture.

So you must wonder, by what authority is this letter writer speaking? Well, as a Lieutenant Colonel and Combat Arms Battalion Commander in the Army I am responsible for the welfare, training, good order, and discipline of my soldiers. I am responsible for everything they do or fail to do. I am also responsible to follow and issue only those orders that are legal, ethical and moral. Torture of another human being is illegal, unethical and immoral, and I would be duty bound to disobey any such order…just as PFC Lynndie England and SPC Charles Graner (and their many counterparts, senior officers and NCOs at Abu Ghraib) should have done…just as any of my soldiers should disobey should I give such an order. We all have the lessons of Nuremburg to rely upon anytime such questions come to mind; “I was just following orders” is never justification for committing crimes against other human beings.

Before deploying to Iraq last year, I explained these things to my troopers. It is difficult to explain to young (practically) kids, with little experience, and poor knowledge of the world…but if you are caring and committed, and repeat yourself often enough they learn and understand. I told them the most important thing they needed to take away from all their preparations was that while it would be terrible to lose one of them or have one of them seriously physically injured, it would be worse to have them come home physically well and mentally broken because they had somehow lost their humanity. Torture destroys our humanity, and any equivocation (feel free to exercise the Kantian absolutist vs utilitarian argument to your heart’s content) on the matter is just bullshit.

. . . If captured I would honor our Armed Forces Code of Conduct to the best of my ability and go to whatever my fate, resolute in the knowledge that our nation remains a last bastion of what is right (or ought to be right) in the world. Torture has no place in America, and Americans have no reason to employ it. War ain’t fair, but we have to fight it while maintaining a level of dignity and humanity, jus in bello. This is rough work for people bound to a code of Duty, Honor, Country. Proselytizers, who say but do not act, need not apply. 

To summarize: Those who endorse torture need to think twice about the effect it has on the moral and discipline of our troops. Also, think about his point that torture has two victims: the person suffering it, and the person inflicting it.  

Billie/PartsnPieces/flickr 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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