The Military-Non-Military Split Over Torture

By Mark Shields

April 24, 2009 5 min read

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. military.

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

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