Best Defense

Want another Abu Ghraib? Keep ignoring ethics training for soldiers

Last week I wrote about Maj. Douglas Pryer’s study of U.S. military interrogation practices during the first year of the war in Iraq. His conclusion is that much more work is needed in teaching ethics to future military leaders. In an e-mail exchange, I asked him to elaborate on his views. (And isn’t "Pryer" a ...

Last week I wrote about Maj. Douglas Pryer’s study of U.S. military interrogation practices during the first year of the war in Iraq. His conclusion is that much more work is needed in teaching ethics to future military leaders. In an e-mail exchange, I asked him to elaborate on his views. (And isn’t "Pryer" a good name for a military intelligence officer? Reminds of the Marine general I knew named Boomer.) 

By Maj. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army
Best Defense
guest military ethics columnist

Politics aside, it is painfully clear today that the use by Americans of those interrogation techniques misleadingly referred to as "enhanced" was extremely unwise. The "Abu Ghraib" and "Gitmo" scandals enraged even moderate Muslims and were a recruitment boon for anti-U.S. Islamic terrorists and fighters. These and other torture scandals also demoralized and polarized Americans, which in turn threatened to lead to our premature exit from Iraq.

How did the U.S. and its military get interrogation so wrong? The answer is simple: poor ethical leadership. Despite millions of man hours of military and law enforcement experience which should have convinced them otherwise, many leaders bought into the idea that brutish interrogation techniques are more effective at producing reliable intelligence than the cunning application of traditional, rapport-based approaches.

These leaders then concluded that, if it might save lives, it was permissible for Americans to use these brutal techniques. This conclusion was reached despite the proud American tradition of treating prisoners of war humanely.

This failure in ethical decision-making took place at all levels of command. At the national level, President Bush was aware of his senior security advisors meeting on the issue of enhanced techniques, and he approved of this discussion. For six weeks, Donald Rumsfeld gave blanket approval to interrogators at Gitmo to use these techniques. From Gitmo, these techniques migrated to Afghanistan, and from Afghanistan, to Iraq.

The commander of combined U.S. forces in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, then approved two poorly considered interrogation policies. These policies encouraged the use of enhanced interrogation techniques at Abu Ghraib, various special operations facilities, and a few facilities run by conventional tactical units. At the hands of a twisted group of soldiers at Abu Ghraib, such techniques as "presence of military working dogs" and "removal of clothing" quickly turned into the sadistic abuse that shamed our nation.

But, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of interrogators in Iraq at this time were not abusing detainees. The interrogators of Task Force 1st Armored Division — the largest division-based task force in U.S. Army history — did not once employ enhanced techniques. Neither did interrogators at such theatre-level facilities as camps Ashraf, Bucca, and Whitford. Also, of the many facilities belonging to the 101st Airborne Division, only one secretly slipped into the dark waters of enhanced interrogation. Unfortunately, the good deeds of these units are largely unknown.

Now that we know what went wrong then, are we on the right course now? In most respects, we are. Today, training at the MI schoolhouse is far more robust than it was a few years ago. Well-trained interrogators are assigned to brigades in greater numbers. And with the exception of an absurdly restrictive requirement for interrogators to obtain General Officer approval to keep detainees housed separately (a necessary precondition for most successful interrogation), doctrine is far more consistent, comprehensive, and clearer than it was six years ago.

The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 was also landmark legislation, making the approaches and techniques identified in the Army interrogation field manual (none of which are enhanced techniques) legally binding across the Department of Defense.

Still, we are in danger of missing the proverbial forest for the trees, since the actual problem was never really the "letter of the law" but rather the morally bankrupt spirit that sometimes undermined this law. After all, the same set of rules that existed in Iraq had seen us through the small wars of the 80s and 90s without these rules influencing interrogators to torture sources.

"Law is nothing unless close behind it stands a warm living public opinion," Wendell Phillips, the great abolitionist, once said. Among our political and military leaders, a warm opinion that has embraced the Geneva Conventions and how these conventions are expressed in U.S. law, military regulations, and doctrine has been too often absent since 9/11. Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not immediately end (or even reduce) racism, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 has not ended the belief of many leaders that it is okay for Americans to torture if it might save lives.

Above all, what we need now are strong ethics programs that teach military leaders how to reason toward professionally acceptable solutions to moral dilemmas. Sadly, although such programs now exist at Fort Huachuca, West Point, and a few other military institutions, their existence is hardly uniform across our military.

We must get this fixed!

Major Doug Pryer is a counterintelligence officer who deployed to Iraq from May 2003 to July 2004. His book, "The Fight for the High Ground: the U.S. Army and Interrogation during Operation Iraqi Freedom I" is the first to be published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College University Press. To order, call the CGSC Foundation, 913-651-0624. All proceeds go to the Foundation, which supports the education of officers at CGSC.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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