The case against torture
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During the Battle of Iwo Jima in March 1945, as American soldiers went cave to cave looking for enemy soldiers, a Japanese soldier emerged, wearing nothing but a loin cloth.
The Americans took him into custody. They fed him and clothed him, and took him to a foxhole with them. A short time later, he asked if anyone spoke French.
One soldier did, and all of a sudden, the Americans realized they had captured a high-ranking man -- with a lot of knowledge of Japanese plans -- who was willing to cooperate with them. He told them where other enemy soldiers were hiding in the area and eventually was taken to Washington, D.C. The intelligence he provided was invaluable.
Conversely, it was bad intelligence that led to the current war in Iraq, said Don Guter, a retired rear admiral and former Navy judge advocate general.
After capturing a Libyan trainer for al-Qaida shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the United States turned him over to Egypt.
"They tortured him," said Mr. Guter, now the dean of Duquesne Law School.
It was Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who made the connection between Iraq and al-Qaida, a principal justification for the invasion of Iraq.
"He later recanted, but it was too late," Mr. Guter said.
Those two examples are being used by a group of 49 retired admirals and generals who want to meet with all the presidential candidates to discuss why they believe the United States cannot engage in torture.
Not only does mistreatment of prisoners produce bad intelligence, it violates the rules of war and the Geneva Conventions, creates damaged soldiers and has ruined the United States' standing around the world, Mr. Guter said.
Fifteen members of the group, organized by Human Rights First, met with seven presidential candidates last weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.
The group says the program is designed simply to make sure the candidates are well-informed on the topic.
"As far as we're concerned, this shouldn't be a point the United States should have to debate," Mr. Guter said. "Whoever is the next commander in chief, we want them to believe what we're telling them."
The alliance of retired, high-ranking military officials and a group considered to be quite liberal may seem unusual, Mr. Guter admitted. But he doesn't think so.
"To me, the values we're espousing are conservative," he said. "We're trying to come down on the side of American values that we see being eroded and destroyed."
It was the staff at Human Rights First that noticed various admirals and generals speaking out individually on the issue. They then made the effort to pull the group together.
The mission of the retired military leaders is not to endorse any particular person in the race. They have agreed they will not reveal any of the candidates' responses to the presentations, though Mr. Guter said he thought they've all been favorable.
Of all the candidates they met with last week, only one -- Mike Huckabee -- was a Republican.
"It is a little frustrating, because we do want to talk to everybody," he said.
Matthew Freedus, an adviser to the National Institute of Military Justice, said he's not surprised that few Republicans want to meet with the panel.
"There's potentially very little for the candidate to gain by sitting down with a group that has so much experience on this and that [has a viewpoint] that's so different from the position they can afford to take," Mr. Freedus said. "It's like going into combat without body armor."
He noted that it's unusual for military personnel to be aligned on an issue with Democrats.
"Having service members who are very familiar with the law of war is helpful for this discussion," Mr. Freedus said. "They're straight-talkers. They're going to say how they feel."
The panel of speakers included experts on law, medicine, intelligence and combat operations. Together, Mr. Guter said, they had more than 400 years of military experience.
Darius Rejali, a political science professor at Reed College in Oregon and an expert on torture, said that the message being sent by the generals reflects that of the American public.
Opposition to torture since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has consistently been between 55 and 65 percent in polls, Mr. Rejali said, even for what he calls the "ticking time-bomb question" (asking if torture is acceptable when a catastrophic event is at hand and the person being questioned is believed to have information that could prevent it).
But most Americans have the perception that the majority of people support torture, when they do not.
"We think the debate has been driven by fear," Mr. Guter said. "We've faced vicious enemies in every war.
"But we've never had a policy of torture."
For generations, the United States was looked upon from the outside as having the higher moral authority, Mr. Guter said. But because of recent policy changes, he continued, that is no longer the case.
"The rule of law has suffered," he said. "In the past, we've held the high ground."
Mr. Rejali, who recently published a book, "Torture & Democracy," called the war on terror a war on values.
"You lose the war if you defend your values with barbaric methods," Mr. Rejali said. "If it's a moral cause, people will rally for it."
Like the military panel, he agreed that torture disrupts public cooperation and will lead to increasing terrorism.
"It certainly undermines trust, which is the critical thing here in gathering information," he said.
More than that, Mr. Guter added, it can also harm our own soldiers, who must carry out the torture. When they return from war, they are more likely to face addiction, depression, low morale and what Mr. Rejali called "perpetrator-induced traumatic stress."
"Usually, at the end of war, the torturers are dumped," he said. "Most people don't realize what happens out there comes home."
All of those reasons are cited by Mr. Guter as explanation for why his group wants to have this dialogue with whoever is to lead the United States.
"There's no disconnect between human rights and national security," Mr. Guter said. "They're synergistic. One doesn't work without the other for very long.
"On Inauguration Day, we'd like to have a commander in chief who is a voice for courage."
First Published December 10, 2007 12:00 am