All this talk of torture has reminded me of a memory I have from my first deployment in Iraq, 2005.
The battalion had just experienced a tragic death. The third vehicle in a patrol of four had been hit by a bomb buried under a road. The vehicle, an armored HUMVEE was totally destroyed. It had been turned inside out like a cracked egg. All four Soldiers and NCOs inside the vehicle were killed.
I walked through the tactical operations center in a fog. I was 26, a 1LT, been in the Army for all of a few months, and overwhelmed. I walked from person to person praying, encouraging, crying – I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
Then I saw a patrol getting ready to go out to the scene. I don’t remember what it was they were planning to do but I do remember that they were angry. The talk was of vengeance and death. I grabbed my gear to go with them. Before we left, I looked into the eyes of each Soldier and NCO and said something like, “Remember who we are. Don’t forget the flag you wear on your shoulder. Remember who you are.”
At a memorial a few weeks later for another four Soldiers killed from the same platoon, same squad, in the same way, I heard an officer who outranked me telling some Soldiers with tears streaming down his face and anger in his voice to “do what you have to do. Kill the bastards.” Later I would tell him that by telling some privates to “do what they have to do,” he was giving them permission to follow their emotions rather than their training.
As Soldiers, we do our duty. We do not “do what we have to do.” And we certainly do not do what we feel.
Soldiers follow standard operating procedure. We follow Field Manuals, Regulations, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
I remember a pit stop during a patrol I was on at the “safe house.” We had stopped to refit, drop off some supplies and continue. During the smoke break, sitting in the shade of a fig tree, several Soldiers asked me why we couldn’t just give our detainees to the Iraqi army since they didn’t have the rules that we did. In other words, they were frustrated that we took detainees into custody and gave them food and water. The Iraqi Army was brutal with them. (My commander once confiscated a stick that had a ball on one end of melted plastic. Into that plastic was embedded all sorts of sharp objects. The stick had been taken from the Iraqi Army.) I replied to the question that the rules governing our conduct was an extension of our constitution. That our code of justice was an extension of US Law. US Law forbade torture and torture was counterproductive anyway. Of course the Iraqis wanted to be detained by us rather than their Iraqi brethren. At that time, Iraq was in the midst of ethnic cleansing. At least Americans were governed by something other than brutality and cold pragmatism. We talked about ethics and morality in the heat of an Iraqi afternoon.
Then, this week, I heard the former Vice President talk about doing what we “had to do” after 9/11 to keep the country safe. Apparently that included feeding an untried, uncharged inmate (detainee) through his rectum. Apparently that included paying contractors to do it for us. Apparently, it included keeping people, uncharged and untried, locked in boxes shaped like coffins. I could go on but you get the point.
Bottom line: it would seem, what I told those Soldiers, what I encouraged leaders to think about, what I taught young Soldiers about the American ethic and law – was wrong.
From what I am hearing from our former vice president, religious leadership, political leadership in this country is that our ethic should be based on:
1. Effectiveness – if it works we should do it.
2. Legality – if a lawyer will write a memorandum detailing how its legal, we should do it.
3. Retribution – if 3,000 people were killed, then we should do it.
4. Punishment – if a person is thought to be guilty, there is no mercy, we should do it.
5. Semantics – if we can call it something other than torture (such a negative word), we should do it.
By it, I mean torture.
But is it torture?
Ask this question: if an American Soldier, held by the Taliban, Al Qaida, or ISIL had the following done to them, would it be torture?
Detainees were subjected to “rectal feeding,” a process by which food or nutrients are pumped in through the anus…
Detainees were told they would never leave these “black sites” and that their families would be sexually assaulted or murdered.
Detainee died from hypothermia after being chained to a floor and left there.
Detainees were waterboarded until they turned blue… and were on the verge of drowning.
Sleep deprivation, nudity, dietary manipulation, facial holds, abdominal slaps, facial slaps, and “walling” – being thrown against a wall.
Confined for 11 days in a coffin-sized box.
At one black site, groups of detainees were regularly stripped, beaten, hooded and bound with tape.
Detainees were also refused access to toilets, put in diapers and left hanging by their wrists in cells for extended periods of time.
Others were forced to maintain “stress positions” even on broken limbs and though medical personnel had advised against it.
Not everyone was guilty – Some mistakenly held detainees were subjected to prolonged periods of torture before being released.
If it was your son or your daughter – would it be torture then? Or would it be acceptable since we’re at war and they are just “doing what they have to do” to protect their homeland?
I’m certain that if it was me locked in a coffin shaped box, I would think it torture.
If I was getting fed through my rectum, I would think it torture.
If I was being forcibly drowned, I would think it torture.
As a US Army chaplain, I am obligated by AR 165-1 to speak to ethical and moral issues. The chaplain is to be the moral and ethical voice in the Army.
Torture, effective or not, legal or not, is wrong. It is immoral. It is unethical. It violates our constitution and collective conscience.
It is not for the operator, the corrections officer, the Soldier, the policemen to punish the offender. Retribution comes through the legal process by which a person is tried under US Law and an open, transparent penal system doles out said punishment. No single person can be judge, jury and executioner – not in America and not by Americans.
I worry that we too easily accept the notion of effectiveness. I mean, after all, if Jack Bauer gets it done through torture, why not us?
The other day, on Facebook, I wrote the following as satire in response to the “effective” argument:
“If this ‘torture’ that you speak of is so ‘effective,’ then why do we relegate it to accused terrorists? Why don’t we apply it to domestic kidnapping cases? War on drugs? Traffic violations? Seems like if it’s not ‘torture’ and it ‘works’ to gain actionable intelligence, and it demonstrates the morals and ethical stance of this country, I just don’t see why we need to do it to do it overseas in private, secret prisons. Maybe if we made videos of this safe, effective, and moral non-torture, it would act as a detergent to all sorts of bad behavior. Maybe we could start using it to find out who sprayed that ugly bad word all over the town monument! This is awesome! By making this sort of behavior not-torture and legitimizing it, there is no end to how we could use it for good! After all, if our intentions are ‘right’ then the end justifies the means….”
It was sarcasm but my point is this – if we govern our ethic by pragmatism and effectiveness – it opens the door to everything. That is a world of which I am afraid.
What about the argument that the enemy does it to us??
We are not Al Qaida. We are not ISIL. We are not the Taliban. Our standard of behavior is US law not a terrorist. Full Stop.
But it was legal!
I understand. That does not make it right. Being angry, scared, and needing retribution does not make it right.
So where does that leave us?
Let us collectively decide that torture, by any name, is wrong. We will not do it no matter what is done to us. Let us be above the actions of our enemies and do what is just, regardless of what is done to us.
As a Christian, I am governed by the imperative to “do unto other as you would have done unto you.”
But when it comes to vengeance, retribution, and torture, there is no tension. Vengeance isn’t mine to give, retribution comes through the justice system, and torture is just not done.
We are Americans. Let us be great. Let us be shining lights on a hill. Let us be examples to the world of what it means to have power and wield it for good.
Epilogue – I was going to embed all kinds of links to back up my points but realized that most would not follow them anyway. A quick Google search of these terms will bring you loads of articles agreeing and disagreeing with my opinion:
“Christianity and torture,” “Torture in American history,” “Is torture right,” etc.
I speak for me. The above is my opinion and recommendation I would give anyone in this situation. I’m sure the operators and agents involved with this did so out of love for their country and in a desire to protect it. They also did so with the backing of a legal system that said it was ok. That should protect them. I believe we should search our souls, ask ourselves if this is who we are and examine our systems to see if this is where we should go. It is certainly not where I think we should. Please, for the love of that freedom we hold dear and all that is holy, let us not condone torture – for any reason.