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Mark Shields
Mark Shields
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The Military-Non-Military Split Over Torture


In the blizzard of words and polls analyzing President Obama's "First 100 Days" in office, one number in the latest USA Today-Gallup poll caught my attention.

When asked what was "the best thing" the new president had done, the No. 1 answer given was improving the United States' image in the world.

It is true. The November election of Obama, an African-American without family fortune or connections, reaffirmed convincingly both the openness and the political equality of American democracy.

Like most human beings, Americans would rather be liked than disliked, and over the last eight years a lot more people around the globe have disliked, rather than liked, the United States, its attitude and its policies. Probably nothing has made others think less and Americans feel worse about the United States than the evidence that the U.S. government had authorized "cruel, inhumane and degrading" treatment of captured enemy combatants in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere.

Let us resolve first any doubt over whether the United States does officially prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. Yes, that explicit prohibition is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the binding Convention Against Torture, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate after the urging of the president of the United States to "demonstrate unequivocally our desire to bring an end to the abhorrent practice of torture." Those were the words of President Ronald Reagan.

Yes, the United States has long recognized the illegality of waterboarding prisoners. After World War II in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, the United States convicted several Japanese soldiers as criminals for waterboarding American prisoners of war. In 1968, an American soldier involved in the waterboarding of a North Vietnamese prisoner was court-martialed.

What is most revealing about the continuing public debate over whether extra-legal or clearly illegal techniques of "enhanced interrogation" must be resorted to in order to stop terrorist attacks on America or Americans is the broad fault line between those Americans who are military combat veterans and those who, when they had the chance, preferred not to serve in the U.S.


U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who knows hourly the painful cost of combat, put it well last year in a debate with his primary opponents when he was the only Republican candidate to stand up against the torture of enemy combatants. Speaking of the Senate debate on the Detainee Treatment Act, McCain noted: "There was a sharp division between those who had served in the military and those who hadn't. Virtually every senior officer, retired or active duty, starting with Colin Powell (Presidential Medal of Freedom winner), Gen. (John W.) Vessey (former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and everyone else agreed with my position that we should not torture people."

Among the American military leaders who opposed the Bush-Cheney administration's authorization of torture were Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Hoar, former commander in chief U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and three men — former Air Force pilot and U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, and former Navy pilots Cmdr. Frederick Baldock and Cmdr. Philip Butler. These three men, among them, spent 21 tortured years and 78 days as POWs in North Vietnam.

All of these men have stood with McCain in his fight against torture when he said: "Our brave men and women in the field need clarity. America needs to show the world that the terrible photos and stories of prison abuse are a thing of the past. ... The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don't deserve our sympathy. But this isn't about who they are. It's about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away."

The American defense rests!

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at




11 Comments | Post Comment
The military, non-military split over torture mirrors what was painfully true about the approach of Cheney and Bush to war itself. Their cheerleaders seemed not to want to get the irony of two of the slimiest dodgers of military service being so dead set on shedding the blood of folks other than themselves and their own. Speaking of mirrors and torture, I'm guessing that being within viewing distance of any of those mercilessly reflective objects is going to cause them increasingly unbearable pain as time goes on. I wonder if that will ever allow us to extract information from them we can consider reliable.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Masako
Fri Apr 24, 2009 9:20 PM
This column echoes the wonderful "Shields/Brooks/Lehrer" conversation on Friday night's newshour. The truly impressive thing for me is that Mark Shields in both this column and in last night's Newshour, never mentioned his own training and service as a United States Marine.
Sean Hannity (who never served), and Rush Limbaugh (who never served), and Dick Cheney (who never served) should really learn from this sort of quiet patriotism.
The issue is really about us. Ben Frankin warned about trading liberty for security. More to the point, you cannot trade morality for security. If, for example, I felt that committing a criminal act would enhance my feelings of security for myself and my family, I still should not commit the illegality. Torture is both immoral and criminal. There is no amount of additional security that justifies its use.
Frankly, though, as a former Navy surgeon (there I worked it in), I feel that the ones that should really be prosecuted are not the soldiers, CIA agents, or Justice Department memo writers, but rather the physicians that supervised and "safety-enhanced" these despicable acts.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Jeffrey Sedlack
Sat Apr 25, 2009 6:53 AM
Sir;...There is plenty of hypothetical justification for torture... That is nothing... We could find plenty of hypothetical justification for what ever crime or outrage we might want to commit... But we do not live in hypothetical worlds, but real worlds...As one English Jurist said: There are no imaginary cases.... What one does that is universally considered criminal by all civilized and rational people should be tried, and not in public, and in the press, or in the court of public opinion; but in a court of law.... Are you convinced the outrage you do to humanity is necessary??? Then try the cause before a jury of your peers... They cannot be considered without heart, or soul, or prejudice on your behalf... Save the evidence, and do not destroy so much of it as has been done, as an obstruction of justice... There is your best evidence that people know they were doing wrong in the eyes of all; that when they could document their activities quite easily they obfuscated, and muddied the waters of truth... These people are sadists... What they do in your name they justify for all of us... What they do under the color of law endangers every man in the government, and every world traveller going without the aid of arms or army... To be fair; those ordering this behavior, and those following those orders are like any criminal, and looking out for self interest... They do not want the judgement of the people, and do not want the light of day to shine on their actions... I cannot help but believe that the goal is to radicalize our enemies worse than they are to better justify our own radical behavior... There is simply no good that can come out of this evil equal to the damage it does to us...It is a crime..But worse, it is directly dangerous, because it provides a precident which we cannot ignore but at our peril... Those who do such criminal acts to preserve their positions will turn their arts on the people in an instant.... These people cannot be at once our friends and the enemies of all humanity...They are criminals... .Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #3
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Apr 25, 2009 1:28 PM
That there are enlisted military personnel in prison for participating in unlawful activities and untold numbers of others with ruined careers who had enough ethics to tell right from wrong, is almost as shameful as letting Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bush get away with approving these activities. We set the precedent when we imprisoned and hanged Nazis after Nuremberg who were "soldiers following orders." The people who participated in these activities are criminals and should be invesitgated, prosecuted, convicted, and not allowed to profit in any way for their activities...All the way from the lowest dog handler at GITMO to the Decider in Chief.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Paul M. Petkovsek
Sat Apr 25, 2009 1:49 PM
Re: Masako;...Sir,...Paying taxes is for little people, and so is serving in the military... The thing they both have in common is this: The poor will never own what they pay for, and the poor will never own what they defend... So, many are soldiers of fortune in their own land, working and fighting and risking all for a bit of opportunity... Those who are not mercenaries are left to hate all who would threaten their meager possessions... And I am certain it is not the educated and affluent who are the greatest supporters of torture, but those living hand to mouth holding desperately to little hope, and less of prospects...Normally you could say that such hatred is as meaningless and as inconsequential as those who own it... But, it gives political cover to political criminals, and demagogues.... They care too much about their miserable lives to care much for the pain of others, and the danger they cause...Thanks....Sweeney
Comment: #5
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sat Apr 25, 2009 5:48 PM
Re: Masako How much different would things have been if the Bush Administration had paid attention to the one voice of experience they had in the West Wing, Colin Powell?
Comment: #6
Posted by: Paul M. Petkovsek
Sun Apr 26, 2009 7:12 AM
Thank you, Mark, for getting away from your sports writing long enough to focus on an issue that the world and this country are finally seemingly going to address. I have been very ashamed of my country for the several years that I have known us to be barbarians. Let's us vow together to never elect nor re-elect another official that believes there could ever be justification for torture, nor for IGNORING the fact of torture in our immediate past (present President included).
Comment: #7
Posted by: Mike Ohr
Sun Apr 26, 2009 8:48 AM
Re: Mike Ohr;... I have to agree... Obviously Mr. Shields, God bless him, love sports, but to me it is like a guy with a mind for meat, and a taste for sugar... Give me the meat.... There is too much going on in our world right now to be focused on high priced entertainment.... Or let me put it another way: When the gallows threatens in so many dimensions, that is enough to concentrate the mind; and when the threat is real, the mind should be concentrated...Even Batt Masterson, who was a sports writer, knew which way the wind blew; cold for the poor... Even if people grow fatigued with talk of injustice, there will only be justice in America when those not injured by injustice are as indignant as those who are... And I learned that from Socrates, and he could pitch a mean game.....And by the way; Barbarians were all too much to concerned with honor to behave as we... They would torture an enemy by way of death... That just made it all very entertaining... Thank God for television. ..The pain of others can be way too entertaining, and it is better to keep it behind glass..And... I agree about the president... Not one of those people ever concedes any power to the people, or to the courts unless pressed... But if such inhuman and illegal activities are not prosecuted those criminals just take it as a green light the next time the opportunity comes their way... ...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #8
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Sun Apr 26, 2009 1:15 PM
I watched this weak sister exchange between Sheilds, Brooks and Lehrer and had to grab a drink to cool my jets. These panty-waists never cited that Abu Zabaida or Kahlid Sheik Mohamm-yo-mamma, who experienced the most extreme of these interrogation measures, are on trial at Gitmo. At their first appearance, KSM went into a two hour diatribe against his living conditions, the nature of the trial and his ability to strke again against all non-Muslim entities in the world. WOW. Sure seems like this dude really is suffering from these harsh measures.

As for Shields, this dude was almost apocpoliplitic in his denunciation of the military and CIA treatment of these two MONSTER terrorists responsible for 60 billion dollars of destruction in NYC and more than 5,000 American civilian lives. He trembled and said what we are doing is the best recruitment for Al-Q. Guess what Ms Shields, these dudes destroyed the WTC before we started these harsh interrogation measures not AFTER we did.

Mark, I see you are a former USMC. In checking your service dates, I see its PEACE TIME. Also, its probably NROTC out of Notre Dame. One of the most liberal universities in the world and a hugger of the main abortionist, that Jug Earred Dancer who now resides in the White House.

So, my advise is, leave the analysis to hard core combat USMC - like me - who know what an enemy is all about and how to deal with them so we don't have another WTC, Pentagon, Embassies in Africa or USS Cole.

And get a haircut, get a drool cup and loose about 80 pounds otherwise, remove any references to the USMC from you bio and website.

Comment: #9
Posted by: Frank Rizzo
Sun Apr 26, 2009 11:16 PM
Re: Frank Rizzo;...Sir,...It is a criminal and immoral act to punish first, and convict after...You must know the proper order of things in our legal system...In fact you know that to have victory, and empty victory we will throw legality and morality to the dogs...Our object is terror, when our object, if peace lay beyond it, is honor... No man can be driven to accept Islam except on his honor... People become Muslims not by baptism while a pup, but as an adult, by swearing that there is no God but the God... We will never understand these people until we understand honor, and honor is good faith; and in good faith it is better for our souls to murder outright those who fall into our grasp, than to use our control over their unarmed bodies to injure them, and to urge them to dishonor...We cannot live this way, and we will not survive this way... We prove ourselves the enemy of humanity and of all Islam by our actions, and worse, we invite further attack and conflict... We cannot win against these people... We must have peace... We had peace, and we must have it again...Thanks...Sweeney
Comment: #10
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Mon Apr 27, 2009 8:16 PM
I left this post in response to a Michael Gerson op-ed in the Washington Post this week. I'd like to share it here, too.

What all the apologists for this enterprise fail to accept is that the military lawyers were putting their careers on the line to stop this abomination from happening. Here's the way the Justice Department should have handled the inquiry:

1. What you propose to do is in violation of the anti-torture statute.
2. What you propose to do is in violation of the United States Constitution.
3. What you propose to do is in violation of the Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners.
4. Should you determine that, as a matter of national policy, taking these measures is none the less necessary, you will be afforded the best defense that can be mustered on your behalf, as is your right as an accused under the United States Constitution.

How any lawyer could have engaged in the level of sophistry that justified these acts is beyond me. I've read the Bybee memo. It is not a disinterested legal opinion, it is an advocacy brief. I've heard the argument that these were trying times - that's when the best and brightest of us are supposed to remain focused and not panic. I really don't care if any of these people face criminal prosecution, but let's stop trying to call them heroes. They were called upon in terrible times, and they failed to live up to any measure of professionalism.
Comment: #11
Posted by: steve dix
Thu Apr 30, 2009 6:50 AM
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