What a captive soldier says under duress does not count…

July 20, 2009

I vividly recall a class I took in Army basic training at Ft. Lewis, Wa. back in 1968. It was held in a small garage-like structure on our company grounds and the lieutenant was saying that if we were ever to get captured by the enemy it would be a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice for us to make any statements on behalf of the enemy. Okay, I said my recollection was vivid. I don’t recall his exact words; I just have the clear mental picture of the setting and the gist of what he said.

He also said that the only thing – the only thing – we were supposed to divulge was our “name, rank, and serial number”, as per the Geneva Convention (and as a bit of trivia, we had serial numbers then, that being just before they exchanged military serial numbers for Social Security numbers). Our main duty, the lieutenant said, was to conspire with other prisoners to escape.

With that in mind, I watched and read with sadness the story of the Idaho soldier who has been taken captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan (apparently everything in that part of the world ends in an). There he was saying he was “scared” (quite understandable) and he urged his government to bring the troops home. Of course he was saying all of this under coercion. One wonders how the enemy can think this has any effect.

The military rules back when I took the class, according to that lieutenant, carried penalties (treason) for any soldier who gave in to the enemy like that. But as far as I can detect those rules have not been enforced, at least since Vietnam (Korea?), and I think I read once that they have been softened some.

Even fearless John McCain (and I am not being sarcastic – anyone who could pick Sarah Palin for a running mate seems fearless, and there I was being sarcastic) temporarily gave in to the enemy after being tortured, although he later recanted and resumed his brave resistance while still in captivity.

I feel nothing but sorrow and pity for anyone captured by the enemy and give no weight whatsoever to what a person might say when obviously under duress.

(And that goes for both sides. Waterboarding is not truth serum.)

While I don’t believe in news censorship, I do believe in news judgment. While I think it probably is incumbent on those who present news in such a story to mention that a captive has been obviously forced to make statements, there is no need to actually play videos of them, or to say much more.

It is important to know or get clues about how the enemy is treating our prisoners.

Unfortunately we can only expect the worst if we look inward and think how maybe our government has treated some prisoners.

The U.S. military charges that the enemy is violating international law by forcing the captured soldier to peform for a video. Too bad our government was not so concerned with laws against torture. It weakens the case.

Yes, even though I might not always agree with U.S. war policy, I still think that it is generally correct to say that the U.S. is on the side of right.

On the other hand, our foes have no doubt convinced themselves of the same thing, and have no mercy for captives.


My condolences to the captured soldier’s loved ones and a wish that he comes home safe after all.

You don’t have to follow an illegal order, or do you???

April 23, 2009

While I think some of those GIs we saw in those awful Abu Ghraib photos abusing and torturing prisoners may have looked as they were all having a little too much fun, I realize the terrible dilemma they faced.

The evidence is clear that they were ordered to use harsh treatment (the euphemism for torture) on the prisoners (or detainees, another and strange euphemism) by non-military personnel (who were put in charge of some in the military) and by superior officers (that is not to say that it would not be possible that even then some went beyond what was ordered, although I doubt it).

But the terrible dilemma faced by anyone in the military, especially the lowly enlisted person, is that while you are not supposed to follow illegal orders, if you don’t, you could still be subject to punishment, to include courts martial. And if you do follow illegal orders, you may well still be subject to punishment to include courts martial (just ask Lynndie England and Charles Graner, for example) .

I am not a lawyer or legal authority but I did take Army basic training. I remember it clearly back in February of 1968 at Ft. Lewis, Wa. in a basic training company in the north fort area in what was a small wooden building that was something like a garage. The officer told us that we were not expected to follow illegal orders. “If you were told to march over the cliff,” you would not have to comply, he told us. But soldiers are not lawyers (generally) and have no way of knowing how to interpret the law in all cases (most cases) or, worse still, how the courts martial or courts of appeal might interpret it. We were told that if we chose to disobey what we deemed an illegal order that we’d better be right, because if we were not we would be subject to disciplinary action, to include courts martial.

If I am a guard at a prison and I am ordered or instructed that I should slap a prisoner, or I should make him or her remove her clothes and to otherwise humiliate a prisoner, or if I am ordered to take part in water boarding (but told it is not torture, just a harsh technique), who am I to argue? It might or might not seem morally repugnant to me, but in the eyes of the law it might not be illegal.

Also, as I mentioned in a previous blog, one of the first things a soldier learns in basic training is that superiors always have the double standard of telling you what to do but at the same time retaining deniability if something goes wrong. That is why career military people learn to cover their asses, CYA.

So what I am really trying to say here is that while in all of this harsh treatment and torture stuff, while I think that some of the lower level people may have known on some level that what they were doing was wrong and while they may (or may not) have enjoyed it a little too much, if they had wanted to be on the straight and narrow they would have likely faced a Catch 22.

That’s why the moral compass has to be set at the top.


Many articles I have read suggest that out and out torture is not generally effective. There are many mind games and methods that use deception and the fear of the unknown that produce positive results.

It may (or may not) hurt our intelligence gathering capability to the extent that prisoners might in the future feel that they will not face actual torture. Hopefully we can deal with the wrong doing of the past (and we do need to in order to make sure it does not happen again) without opening up our whole play book to the other side.