Among the most durable stereotypes of American political culture is that military officers secretly yearn for authoritarian rule and blind brutality, especially if they happen to be from the South, while civilian officials and intellectuals supposedly cherish our constitutional order.
Those old liberal clichés have been proven false in the struggle to curtail the lawless misconduct symbolized by Abu Ghraib. We now know that the most reliable defenders of the Constitution are lifetime military officers—bolstered by a trio of Southern conservative Senators who also happen to be decorated veterans.
They have been pushing back against the neoconservative academics and experts whose advice led to torture scandals and the abrogation of civil and human rights.
In an effort to restore the honor of the armed forces and prevent future abuses, Senators John McCain of Arizona, John Warner of Virginia and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have proposed amendments to the Defense Authorization Act that would institute standards for the treatment of military detainees. Having loyally muted their criticism during last year’s election season, the three Republican Senators are again voicing demands for candor and reform.
The White House responded with a blatant threat conveyed by Vice President Dick Cheney. Rather than accept sane restraints on future abuse, the President would veto the annual defense bill. With the administration’s credibility badly diminished, the Senate Republican leadership postponed a vote on the defense bill until September.
Meanwhile, however, the dispute between the Republican rebels and the White House has revealed similar dissension within the military. Those fissures were exposed when Senator Graham released declassified memoranda written by top Judge Advocate General officers. Pried loose from the Pentagon by the Senator, those memos show that in early 2003, ranking J.A.G. officers from every service branch tried to warn against interrogation methods that violate the human and legal rights of prisoners in U.S. military detention facilities.
Every American who cares about our troops, our security and our international prestige should know why the J.A.G.’s were so deeply concerned about the direction taken by the Bush administration.
In essence, the J.A.G. officers worried about the effect on the military of policies that encouraged torture and other interrogation practices prohibited under U.S. and international law. Doing so endangered American troops, who could be prosecuted in U.S. or international courts—and undermined their own protection against enemy abuses. The J.A.G. officers could barely conceal their astonishment that the Bush administration would consider discarding decades of training and tradition for the sake of dubiously effective interrogation methods.
“Treating [the] detainees inconsistently with the [Geneva] Conventions arguably ‘lowers the bar’ for the treatment of U.S. POWs in future conflicts,” wrote Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack Rives. “How will this affect their treatment when incarcerated abroad and our ability to call others to account for their treatment?” asked Navy Rear Adm. Michael Lohr.
The “implementation of questionable techniques will very likely establish a new baseline for acceptable practice in this area,” wrote Army Gen. Michael Romig, “putting our service personnel at far greater risk and vitiating many of the POW/detainee safeguards the U.S. has worked hard to establish over the past five decades.”
Somehow, those concerns appear to have made little impression on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his advisors. But then, as Marine Corps Gen. Kevin Sandkuhler noted dryly in his own dissenting memo, those zealous lawyers promoting torture in the Justice Department and the White House “do not represent the services; thus, understandably, concern for service members is not reflected in their opinion.”
More broadly, the J.A.G. officers were troubled by the implications for the military and the nation of the high-handed attitude exemplified by the Bush advisors. What kind of country would the United States become if we allowed our military officers to behave like criminals? What kind of country would we become if we accepted the dangerous theory, promoted by the Pentagon civilians, that in wartime a President can issue whatever orders he may choose, regardless of U.S. and international law?
We have yet to confront the full consequences of that theory, as applied in U.S. military detention facilities. At the moment, the Pentagon and the White House are withholding photos and videos that reportedly document abuses even graver than what we’ve already seen, despite a court order demanding their release.
The warnings of the J.A.G. officers were prescient indeed. Someday, when historians consider how this President and his associates sought to overturn American values, traditions and statutes in pursuit of absolute power, they will praise the officers and politicians who resisted those illegitimate maneuvers.