Lawrence B. Wilkerson


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Between 2002 and 2005, I was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. During that time (which included the invasion of Iraq), I learned that America's armed forces were involved in practices that violated the Geneva Conventions, the International Convention Against Torture, U.S. domestic law, and the written and unwritten moral code of the American soldier. Simply put, American fighting men and women were abusing detainees. I later learned that they were doing so on the basis of policies being set by senior members of the Bush administration. As someone who had spent thirty-one years in the Army, I was appalled. Not only was my beloved Army being corrupted, but U.S. prestige and power were being diminished across the globe.

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In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court, deliberating on torture and abuse, wrote that even though a "democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back, it nonetheless has the upper hand." Today, America has lost that upper hand, and the strategic repercussions are momentous.

In capitals around the world, America's voice no longer resonates powerfully in the name of human rights and dignity. We have corrupted that voice, perhaps irreparably. We have handed the people who wish us harm an invaluable recruiting tool. To visit a Web site created by radical jihadists is to understand that their most powerful advertisements are the prison at Guantanamo Bay, the photographs from Abu Ghraib, and the presence of U.S. combat forces in Iraq. If the surest way to defeat terrorists is to dry up the support they have from within the Muslim community, then we are taking the surest path to doing the opposite.

Yes, our enemies often treat those Americans whom they capture far worse than we treat them. That is indisputable; that is one reason they are our enemies. It does not matter that they do not live up to their obligations; it only matters that we do. This is what we did in both Korea and Vietnam, even though the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese paid little heed to the laws of war. If we don't follow the rules, we have weaker legal grounds on which to demand that our own soldiers be treated fairly, or that reparations be made, or that simple justice prevail. And, from a purely moral point of view, we cannot live with ourselves if we do not live up to our values.

To fight well, American soldiers require a just cause, plain objectives, and clear rules. Those rules are especially important because any army has people who fail to meet its standards or who lack restraint and judgment. Rules must be strictly enforced, and violations must be punished. That's why tossing out the rules after 2001 was so perilous. When American soldiers were given ambiguous orders and directives that implicitly condoned—and even encouraged—the blurring or breaking of normal boundaries, abuses were inevitable. I should note that many soldiers refused to participate in the abuse of detainees, even in the face of pressure from superiors, and from that I take heart. While their resistance should be honored, however, it should never have been necessary.

The French like to say that during World War II all of France could hear the screams from those tortured within the Gestapo's headquarters in Paris on the rue Lauriston. Those who heard those screams undoubtedly found consolation in the thought that the German invaders would be expelled and that Frenchmen would never engage in such abuses. But they would. In the war in Algeria, the French resorted to torture—and for decades France struggled with its soul as the worst horrors of that war were revealed.

The worst horrors of our war have yet to be revealed—but they will be. Secret prisons, renditions, homicides, torture, and innocents swept up in a vast network of detention—all will be revealed. It is the nature of our openness that it be so. We must start now to recognize our crimes and our complicity. We are all guilty, and we must all take action in whatever way we can. Torture and abuse are not American. They are foreign to us and always should be. We need to exorcise them from our souls and make amends.

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Colonel Lawrence B. Wilkerson, U.S. Army (Ret.), was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. He is now the Pamela Harriman Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary.  
 
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