Best Defense

General Dempsey vs. torture

If Dempsey really is going to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a strong point in his favor is that he has an ethical compass, as was demonstrated by this incident that occurred while he was commanding the 1st Armored Division during a particularly difficult time in Iraq. Several other senior commanders failed ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

If Dempsey really is going to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, a strong point in his favor is that he has an ethical compass, as was demonstrated by this incident that occurred while he was commanding the 1st Armored Division during a particularly difficult time in Iraq. Several other senior commanders failed to make the choice he did.

This is from retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington’s introduction to Maj. Douglas Pryer’s The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003-April 2004.

In this connection, the 1st Armored Division merits a special mention. Pryer provides an eye-witness account of how, during the summer of 2003, with Saddam Hussein still at large, and evidence that an insurgency was taking hold, frustrated officials in Baghdad championed a "take off the gloves" approach to interrogations. In August 2003, LTG Sanchez’s Combined Joint Task Force-7 (CJTF-7) headquarters in Baghdad sent an infamous email to all units that participated in interrogation operations, now known as "the gloves are coming off" communication. The email’s author informed subordinate units that it was time to ratchet up the pressure on detainees.  Some units welcomed the unleashing, and sent in proposed lists of not-so-pretty coercive measures that might be added to the list of permissible techniques. 

The 1st Armored Division, charged with the onerous mission of securing the city of Baghdad, reacted differently. The Commander of the Division’s 501st Military Intelligence Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Laurence Mixon, and his operations officer, Major Nathan Hoepner, saw the dangers in such a policy. Both knew that if the chain of command suggested that prisoners might be treated harshly, it would create a slippery slope fraught with the danger of abusive conduct by soldiers. Hoepner told CJTF-7 and his fellow-intelligence warriors that it was time to "take a deep breath and remember who we are," reminding all hands of the U.S. Army’s core values and its long tradition of staying "on the high ground." In taking this position, Hoepner and Mixon were supported by Division Commander, MG Martin Dempsey, who, to his everlasting credit, told his troops, "As you’ve heard me say before, we must remember who we are. Our example is what will cause us to prevail in this environment, not our weapons. I really believe that. We need to show the Iraqi people what ‘right’ looks like."

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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