With the release of the so-called “torture” memos and now the full Senate Armed Services Committee’s report on detainee treatment, the debate over detainee abuse has focused on further investigations into the military personnel, intelligence operatives and even lawyers involved in the detention and treatment of detainees like my client, Fayiz al-Kandari.
As horrifying details of detainee mistreatment and the dubious legalisms used to justify them continue to emerge, it’s important to remember that military personnel take great pride in the fact that the US holds itself to a higher standard than our enemies. If our enemies show contempt for the rule of law and contempt for human rights, we are no better if we choose to do the same.
As a young enlisted infantryman attending basic training 26 years ago, I remember being taught my obligations under the Laws of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and the Geneva Conventions, and most importantly, my obligations to fellow human beings captured on the battlefield.
Basic human rights are never abolished. Although we may have differences and may have been born in different parts of the world and practice different customs and religions, we are all members of the same human race. No matter the reasons for going to war or the atrocities committed by our adversaries, there is nothing which compels us to inflict unnecessary suffering upon our adversaries through torture, rape or execution of innocent civilians. Indeed, such actions, whether by us or our adversaries, are appropriately categorized as war crimes and punishable as such.
Through many difficult lessons learned from conflicts throughout the centuries, the international community has endeavored to create a set of laws to govern conduct during armed conflict. Initially, these laws were unwritten but over time, some of these rules became so ingrained that they were given the status of customary international law.
Efforts were subsequently made by world leaders to write these laws into international treaties so that these concepts would not be forgotten and would be available as guidance in future conflicts by combatants the world over, regardless of our different cultures and societal norms. Treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, the Hague Convention, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, among others, reflect international consensus for the treatment of combatants and civilians alike.
Unfortunately, there are those that will not read nor follow these rules, no matter how many times they are written. For them, we need to lead by example. I was taught and continue to teach that exceptions to the rules will not, and could not, be tolerated. Ever. Torture and inhumane treatment was something our enemies did – not the United States. Doing so would violate international and domestic law, to say nothing of our nation’s morals and principles, and that violation would be prosecuted without exception.
The fact that we must treat prisoners in a humane manner is not a hindrance to the mission – it is part of the mission and a source of great pride among US military personnel. Today’s wars are increasingly asymmetrical in nature, and victories in Iraq, Afghanistan and the future will increasingly be dependent upon successful counterinsurgency campaigns.
This often means that the more force you use, the less effective it is, e.g., an operation that achieves an objective but results in collateral damage to the civilian population results in mission failure. The same holds true for how we treat those in US custody. What our enemies might do to us is immaterial to our conduct. Indeed, as Sen. John McCain, himself a retired war veteran and torture victim, has said, “It’s not about them. It’s about us and what kind of country we are.”
I am saddened to learn the LOAC and Geneva obligations in which I had been trained and followed for more than 26 years were abandoned under the cloak of legal authority. Call it what you will, but mistreating captives in our custody has not made us safer and it will be a long time before our national image recovers from leaders who allowed “never” and “under no circumstances” to be replaced with “except to the extent that military necessity required otherwise.”
My military service is nearing an end and it will soon be time for the next generation to take the reins. But before I and other experienced leaders depart, we have one last mission to accomplish and it is perhaps the most important of our careers. We must ensure that the future generation of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines returns our country to the forefront of the international community when it comes to adhering to the laws of armed conflict. Principle is power and may very well be one of the best weapons at our disposal preventing and succeeding in future wars.