30 September, 2005

Captain Fishback

I am no expert on military matters of any stripe, but I count among my friends those who definitely are. So, I'd like to share with you something that one of those friends sent me recently.

For those who may not know the whole story, an Army Captain of the 82nd Airborne has gone public with his concerns that he was not given adequate guidelines for how to treat prisoners or detainees during his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He says he spent 17 months asking internally for advice and clarification and that this lack of direction created situations that lead to what he fears was abuse or torture. CPT Fishback was apparently interviewed by Human Rights Watch over the last several months, and his ethical concerns clearly come through in his words. He seems very credible and earnest, but of course he's taking a lot of heat from both his army peers and the Pentagon types.

Because of CPT Fishback's apparent credibility, I am extremely disturbed and disappointed to think that there may have been a such a huge (systemic) failure of leadership in this case, and that there could be horrendous cases of abuse associated with this failure. I brought this up with a friend who is a rather high-ranking military officer. I found his reply so insightful and thought-provoking that I asked (and received) permission to share it here. I'll let him simply speak for himself:

Nothing rises or falls on one man's opinion, no matter how passionately held. We do a better job of most at staying on top of the core values: Duty, Honor, Country for the Army. Honor, Courage, Commitment for the Navy. The Corps, for the Corps. But none of us are perfect, and as institutions, sometimes we are very far from that we ought to be.

The Captain has launched his volley - the [military/DoD] will respond. Somewhere between the two the truth will be found. I'm sure he would have gotten someone's attention if he had said, "Look, I feel really seriously about this issue and it's not being answered to my satisfaction. If I can't get a square response from someone, I'm going to the people via the press - I'm going over everyone's head." If he did so and was still shut down, then everyone in his chain of command deserves what's coming to them. If he did so and they answered but he still wasn't satisfied, well that's something different, and we'll have to look at the facts.

It's never all of one thing, or all of another. I'm sure the captain had his guidance - I'm not sure he agreed with it. At some point, an officer is supposed to use his judgement - not everything can be spelled out. That's why we pay them the leadership bucks. Ultimately, he is responsible to the Army (and to the country) for doing what he thought was right.

[snip] No one should be surprised when people on the other side of the issue (all of whom believe they're doing the right thing for the country) look for a way to discredit the author of what will end up being a very damaging letter.

Is the captain's moral quandary more important than winning the war? ...Does he relish the opportunity to be the One Brave Man while everyone else goes grimly about the task at hand? I guess we'll find out soon.

Knowing the author of the above, those last questions are asked with great sincerity. He closed his letter with the famous line by General Sherman (Civil War): "All war is cruelty - there is no use trying to reform it."

He certainly left me with a new perspective and a lot to think about...

See Neptunus Lex and Castle Argghhh! for additional informed discussion of this topic from a military officer's perspective (be sure to read the comments).