An Officer's Obligation -- Say No to Torture

"Once an Army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains... A good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control both in his men and in himself."

-- General George C. Marshall

As a former active duty military officer, it is troubling to me that other military officers followed unlawful orders to torture or abuse prisoners. Military officers have a sacred responsibility that is embedded in their oath of office: "I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same..."

The Constitution specifically prohibits cruelty to any person in the Eighth Amendment ("Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted"). Those officers who ordered, authorized, or were complicit in the torture and abuse of prisoners violated their oath of office. The United States has a rich history of military ethics dating back to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. According to General Washington, "Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country." He said this in 1775, during a time when the birth of our nation hung in the balance.

It is the role of military officers, as first line supervisors, to ensure that we live up to our American principles in the conduct of every tactic we use in war. If an infantry platoon is ordered to take a hill and fails to do so because of enemy resistance, an order is not given to break out flame throwers and mustard gas in violation of the Law of Armed Conflict. Instead, we leverage our American ingenuity within the rules, we use our intellect, and we preserve through our courage to fight in accordance with our principles.

As I led an interrogations team in Iraq chasing the notorious former leader of Al Qaida, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, we encountered detainees who did not provide us valuable intelligence information. We used those men as opportunities to refine our approaches and to improve our interrogation skills within the rules. It was those improved skills that we later used to break the terrorists within Zarqawi's network who, ultimately, sold him out.

We are Americans and we are smart enough to win the battle of wits in the interrogation room. We cannot afford to doubt our abilities. We should focus on improving our methods within the legal framework of Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution. And military officers have a heightened responsibility to effect change and to lead our interrogator corps to its full potential. We are smart enough.

Matthew Alexander spent fourteen years in the U.S. Air Force and Air Force Reserves. An "investigator turned interrogator", he deployed to Iraq in 2006, where he led the interrogations team that located Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaida in Iraq, who was killed by Coalition Forces. Alexander was awarded the Bronze Star for his achievements. He is the author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.