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September 29, 2005

On making difficult decisions

I've been asked by several people to comment on Captain Fishback's letter in the Washington Post.

The intro:

I am a graduate of West Point currently serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry. I have served two combat tours with the 82nd Airborne Division, one each in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I served in the Global War on Terror, the actions and statements of my leadership led me to believe that United States policy did not require application of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. On 7 May 2004, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's testimony that the United States followed the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and the "spirit" of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan prompted me to begin an approach for clarification. For 17 months, I tried to determine what specific standards governed the treatment of detainees by consulting my chain of command through battalion commander, multiple JAG lawyers, multiple Democrat and Republican Congressmen and their aides, the Ft. Bragg Inspector General's office, multiple government reports, the Secretary of the Army and multiple general officers, a professional interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, the deputy head of the department at West Point responsible for teaching Just War Theory and Law of Land Warfare, and numerous peers who I regard as honorable and intelligent men.
Instead of resolving my concerns, the approach for clarification process leaves me deeply troubled.

If you haven't read this, you should.

A couple of things, in answer to questions. Yes, Captain Fishback is real. That's his name, that's his unit. I've checked.

Second - he's right that the guidance has been muddled, changing, and at times contradictory. His quest for answers occurred over months, and over those months, answer did, in fact, change. I've been following that myself, from the inside. I have a good friend who has written a historical monograph on the subject, recently, for the Army, and he said his research was difficult and confusing. If it was that way for a professional historian, I imagine for troops in the field in what we term the "OE" or Operational Environment, it was more so... if they ever got the word, definitively.

It's all been a black eye for the services, certainly. Whether I agree or not with whatever current definition is being floated by whomever, with whatever axe to grind, there is no doubt that there has been a failure of the leadership to fully and forcefully grasp and deal with the issue in an effective way. And, in many respects, having been on operations, the failures may be at far lower levels than you think, for reasons that have to do with the behavior of soldiers under combat stress. But that's a post for a different time.

What's clear with Captain Fishback is that he feels the chain of command has been unresponsive, possibly even evasive.

There is a book, originally published as in 1960 as DoD Pam 1-20, the Armed Forces Officer, authored by BG S.L.A. Marshall. It had in it a passage talking, essentially, about "Speaking Truth to Power" though Marshall certainly didn't term it that way. The current version, revised in 1988, waters that discussion down considerably - to my personal regret.

Marshall said, essentially, that if, upon reflection, an officer felt strongly enough about something, he must speak out to his superiors, regardless of personal consequence. Apparently Captain Fishback finds himself in that position. I'm sure it's a lonely one within his peer group, and he finds himself among strange new friends... such as Human Rights Watch.

As a Navy CPO I've been chatting with notes:

The German Great General Staff once issued a certificate to officers selected for staff duty which in part read:

"The King has made you a staff officer in order that you will know those orders to obey and those not to be obeyed."

Whether he is right to do this, only time will tell. And only time will tell what the price is he pays for doing it.

John | Permalink | Comments (24) | Observations on things Military
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