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general petraeus’ letter to the troops

general petraeus’ letter to the troops

It is good, very good, to hear General Petraeus talk about dignity, respect, and integrity, values, law, and doing what is right. It is good to hear him take an unequivocal stand against torture, both because it is wrong and because it serves no useful purpose. It is good to hear him emphasize the first reason, stating clearly that war is not just about doing what works, not just about gaining the upper hand by whatever means necessary, but about doing the right thing the right way.

We need voices like his in leadership, in the military and in government. The threat of terrorism — both real and imagined — has engendered a fear among us that has clouded our commitment to “the moral high ground.” We have granted our tacit approval to tactics of warfare and interrogation and homeland security that just a few short years ago would have been considered unthinkable, the tactics of a people without values, a people with no regard for human dignity.

I applaud his plea for honor and respect — and righteousness — among the armed forces deployed in Iraq. Yet, even so, even in his letter, some jarring contradictions remain.

We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. We are engaged in combat, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly, and we must be violent at times. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave … While we are warriors, we are also all human beings.

Yes, we are human beings, but making war brings to the surface what is inhuman in us — killing and violence, relentless and merciless pursuit. War as such is about destruction, taking life, reckoning your own life or the lives of your companions or the lives of your compatriots — or even a cause, whatever cause it may be — as more valuable than other lives. Torture and disregard for human dignity may not be a necessary adjunct to war, but they differ from “just war” practices only in degree, not in kind.

If there is a better way than torture, there is also a better way than war.

Here is the text of General Petraeus’ letter:

10 May 2007

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen serving in Multi-National Force—Iraq:

Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy. This fight depends on securing the population, which must understand that we—not our enemies—occupy the moral high ground. This strategy has shown results in recent months. Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate attacks, for example, have finally started to turn a substantial portion of the Iraqi population against it.

In view of this, I was concerned by the results of a recently released survey conducted last fall in Iraq that revealed an apparent unwillingness on the part of some US personnel to report illegal actions taken by fellow members of their units. The study also indicated that a small percentage of those surveyed may have mistreated noncombatants. This survey should spur reflection on our conduct in combat.

I fully appreciate the emotions that one experiences in Iraq. I also know firsthand the bonds between members of the “brotherhood of the close fight.” Seeing a fellow trooper killed by a barbaric enemy can spark frustration, anger, and a desire for immediate revenge. As hard as it might be, however, we must not let these emotions lead us—or our comrades in arms—to commit hasty, illegal actions. In the event that we witness or hear of such actions, we must not let our bonds prevent us from speaking up.

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk”; however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual (2-22.3) on Human Intelligence Collector Operations that was published last year shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.

We are, indeed, warriors. We train to kill our enemies. We are engaged in combat, we must pursue the enemy relentlessly, and we must be violent at times. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight, however, is how we behave. In everything we do, we must observe the standards and values that dictate that we treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect. While we are warriors, we are also all human beings. Stress caused by lengthy deployments and combat is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign that we are human. If you feel such stress, do not hesitate to talk to your chain of command, your chaplain, or a medical expert.

We should use the survey results to renew our commitment to the values and standards that make us who we are and to spur re-examination of these issues. Leaders, in particular, need to discuss these issues with their troopers—and, as always, they need to set the right example and strive to ensure proper conduct. We should never underestimate the importance of good leadership and the difference it can make.

Thanks for what you continue to do. It is an honor to serve with each of you.

David H. Petraeus
General, United States Army

disheartened, but not surprised

disheartened, but not surprised

Many Troops Say Torture OK is the title of an article posted at The article discusses a report released today by the Army Medical Department detailing the results of a study of American service personnel in Iraq.

Among the findings of the report:

  • More than a third of those surveyed believe torture should be permitted if it could save the life of a fellow soldier or Marine.
  • Ten percent of the soldiers and Marines in the survey admitted they had mistreated civilians or damaged property “when it was not necessary.”
  • Only a third of Marines and roughly half of soldiers reported they believed that noncombatants should be treated with dignity.

This is appalling. This is embarrassing. This makes me ashamed. What is it we are claiming to defend? Freedom? Dignity? Human rights? Or just ourselves and our ability to pursue our privileged way of life without outside interference?

But such pervasive disregard for human dignity and for the rule of law does not come to exist in a vacuum. It grows and spreads and is deemed acceptable, because our nation’s leaders do not say otherwise, but, in fact, support its assumptions. When our nation’s leaders refuse to be bound by the Geneva Conventions, when they find a time and a reason for “alternative interrogation techniques,” when they downplay the “collateral damage” done to noncombatants, when national security trumps everything else, then the kind of attitude among fighting men and women revealed in this survey is not surprising … disheartening, but not surprising.

speaking out against torture is not a “left”/”right” thing … it’s a following jesus thing!

speaking out against torture is not a “left”/”right” thing … it’s a following jesus thing!

The National Association of Evangelicals has endorsed a declaration confirming their opposition as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, to the use of torture under any circumstances, even in a “war on terrorism.” The permissibiity of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is not a “left”/”right” issue. It is an issue of basic human rights, of basic human dignity, of basic regard for Jesus’ teaching on the way we are to treat our neighbors and our enemies.

I am encouraged that the whole church is speaking with one voice on this issue. May our voice be heard! May our nation not find itself “winning” the war on terrorism at the cost of its own soul!

I am quoting here the whole of the executive summary of the declaration. You may find the summary in its original context and a link to the full declaration on the Evangelicals for Human Rights website.


Executive Summary

1. Introduction: From a Christian perspective, every human life is sacred. As evangelical Christians, recognition of this transcendent moral dignity is non-negotiable in every area of life, including our assessment of public policies. This commitment has been tested in the war on terror, as a public debate has occurred over the moral legitimacy of torture and of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees held by our nation in the current conflict. We write this declaration to affirm our support for detainee human rights and our opposition to any resort to torture.

2. Sanctity of Life: We ground our commitment to human rights in the core Christian theological conviction that each and every human life is sacred. This theme wends its way throughout the Scriptures: in Creation, Law, the Incarnation, Jesus’ teaching and ministry, the Cross, and his Resurrection. Concern for the sanctity of life leads us to vigilant sensitivity to how human beings are treated and whether their God-given rights are being respected.

3. Human Rights: Human rights, which function to protect human dignity and the sanctity of life, cannot be cancelled and should not be overridden. Recognition of human rights creates obligations to act on behalf of others whose rights are being violated. Human rights place a shield around people who otherwise would find themselves at the mercy of those who are angry, aggrieved, or frightened. While human rights language can be misused, this demands its clarification rather than abandonment. Among the most significant human rights is the right to security of person, which includes the right not to be tortured.

4. Christian History and Human Rights: The concept of human rights is not a “secular” notion but instead finds expression in Christian sources long before the Enlightenment. More secularized versions of the human rights ethic which came to occupy such a large place in Western thought should be seen as derivative of earlier religious arguments. Twentieth century assaults on human rights by totalitarian states led to a renewal of “rights talk” after World War II. Most branches of the Christian tradition, including evangelicalism, now embrace a human rights ethic.

5. Ethical Implications: Everyone bears an obligation to act in ways that recognize human rights. This responsibility takes different forms at different levels. Churches must teach their members to think biblically about morally difficult and emotionally intense public issues such as this one. Our own government must honor its constitutional and moral responsibilities to respect and protect human rights. The United States historically has been a leader in supporting international human rights efforts, but our moral vision has blurred since 9/11. We need to regain our moral clarity.

6. Legal Structures: International law contains numerous clear and unequivocal bans on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. These bans are wise and right and must be embraced without reservation once again by our own government. Likewise, United States law and military doctrine has banned the resort to torture and cruel and degrading treatment. Tragically, documented acts of torture and of inhumane and cruel behavior have occurred at various sites in the U.S. war on terror, and current law opens procedural loopholes for more to continue. We commend the Pentagon’s revised Army Field Manual for clearly banning such acts, and urge that this ban extend to every sector of the United States government without exception, including our intelligence agencies.

7. Concluding Recommendations: The abominable acts of 9/11, along with the continuing threat of terrorist attacks, create profound security challenges. However, these challenges must be met within a moral and legal framework consistent with our values and laws, among which is a commitment to human rights that we as evangelicals share with many others. In this light, we renounce the resort to torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of detainees, call for the extension of procedural protections and human rights to all detainees, seek clear government-wide embrace of the Geneva Conventions, including those articles banning torture and cruel treatment of prisoners, and urge the reversal of any U.S. government law, policy, or practice that violates the moral standards outlined in this declaration.

our nation’s greatness?

our nation’s greatness?

From an article by R. Jeffrey Smith in the Washington Post, August 9, 2006: The Bush administration has drafted amendments to a war crimes law that would eliminate the risk of prosecution for political appointees, CIA officers and former military personnel for humiliating or degrading war prisoners, according to U.S. officials and a copy of the amendments …

“People have gotten worried, thinking that it’s quite likely they might be under a microscope,” said a U.S. official. Foreigners are using accusations of unlawful U.S. behavior as a way to rein in American power, the official said, and the amendments are partly meant to fend this off.

They should be under a microscope! Power secured at the expense of human dignity is a corrupting, degrading power. Our nation’s greatness (what greatness there is) is its legacy of putting right before might, of showing the world another way, a way of respect for the rule of law and of respect for human rights, for the rights of all human beings.

When self-preservation and self-aggrandizement and consolidation of power become our top priorities, we are not great at all, but a poor and miserable nation, with nothing of value to offer the rest of the world. The welfare of humanity as a whole demands that we be scrutinized and that our power be reined in.

It is our duty as citizens of this nation to take the lead, to be aware of what our government is doing, and to let our leaders know in no uncertain terms what sort of greatness we want!

a sick and perverted spectacle

a sick and perverted spectacle

A sick and perverted spectacle …

Those are the words Stanley Tookie Williams used to characterize his impending execution. Williams was executed early this morning, after appeals for a stay of execution were denied by the California Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the United States Supreme Court, and after a plea for clemency was rejected by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It was a sick and perverted spectacle …

… not because an innocent man was put to death. It is entirely possible that Williams did not commit the murders for which he was convicted; he always maintained his innocence. Or, as is likely and most believe, he really did do the crimes. Either way, it doesn’t matter.

… not because a changed man, a redeemed man, a man doing society much good was put to death. He may well have become a transformed man, a good man; those nominating him for Nobel Prizes for peace and literature certainly thought so. Or maybe it was all a fraud or a too convenient way to earn pity and support. Either way, it doesn’t matter.

… not because the courts or the governor failed to step in and acknowledge his transformation and show him mercy. They were simply doing their job, interpreting and enforcing the law as it stands. It doesn’t matter.

No, what matters is the law itself, the law of the land that permits this most cruel and unusual punishment. That law is sick and perverted and must be changed. That law accomplishes no useful purpose other than retribution — society exacting its revenge and satisfying its blood lust against those who have done it injury, whether real or perceived. That law diminishes our humanity, devalues human life, and damages the integrity of our advocacy of human rights.

Our need for revenge (a need that can never be satisfied) is a sickness, a sickness that eats away at the soul of our society and only proliferates a culture of violence. Our demand for the forfeiture of a life is a perversion, a perversion of the values and principles for which we claim to stand — justice, mercy, freedom, generosity, the precedence of right over might, and inalienable human dignity.

It was a sick and perverted spectacle …