The Courage of Captain Fishback

No one doubts the bravery of the American soldier when facing enemy fire. But do senior leaders possess moral courage equal to the physical courage of those they send into battle? The question, first posed during the Vietnam War, has recently reemerged. In Baghdad’s “Green Zone” and in Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, a penchant for ignoring inconvenient facts and tolerating the intolerable has left the military professional ethic considerably the worse for wear. Now a very brave and very young officer has stepped forward to insist that the values central to that ethic be restored.

Captain Ian Fishback, West Point Class of 2001, is a decorated veteran of campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where he served with the fabled 82d Airborne Division. During his tour with that division in Iraq, he witnessed American soldiers brutalizing Iraqi detainees. By Fishback’s own account the abuse was not an isolated event. It was systematic and widespread. It directly violated the law of war and served little apparent purpose other than as a source of sadistic entertainment.

Fishback spent the next year-and-a-half trying to interest someone in his chain of command in bringing the perpetrators of this abuse to book. The effort, which included a personal appeal to the Secretary of the Army, proved futile. Perhaps reflecting the extent to which the corruption of professional standards had become pervasive, his superiors preferred to turn a blind eye.

Frustrated by their inaction, convinced that senior defense officials who proclaimed that the United States was faithfully adhering to the Geneva Convention were either lying or deluded, and above all concerned that the service to which he is devoted was losing its moral compass, Fishback decided to take his concerns – now corroborated by two noncommissioned officers – “outside.” He told his story to Human Rights Watch and then to congressional staffers working for Senators of John Warner and John McCain whereupon his charges became public.

Having sounded the alarm, Captain Fishback now finds himself at the center of a big story and a bigger scandal. In his beloved Army, many will no doubt see him as disloyal and will close ranks against him. But if the Army’s senior leaders shun Fishback as a whistleblower who is causing them embarrassment, they will be making a monumental mistake. If they respond to his allegations by repeating the damage control tactics used after Abu Ghraib – putting the blame on “a few bad apples” while giving those in senior positions a pass – they will transform a mistake into a tragedy.

Captain Fishback has provided a wake-up call that the officer corps ignores at its peril. He has presented the Army with a great gift, an opportunity to recover its professional bearings before the rot caused by Iraq becomes irreversible.

The urgent need is to restore the concept of accountability. In that regard, the institutional remedy is not all that difficult to discern.

More than thirty years ago in the aftermath of My Lai, the ruthlessly honest Lieutenant General William Peers headed up an investigation that got to the truth of that awful scandal. The Peers Commission began the long journey that eventually restored the Army’s honor.

So too today, a comparable investigation of detainee abuse in Iraq, conducted with ruthless honesty, is in order, indeed, is long past due. If the Army or the Defense Department lacks the stomach for such an inquiry – and the Pentagon’s inadequate response to Abu Ghraib suggests that may be the case -- then Senators Warner and McCain should surely step into the breach. Only such an investigation, conducted without fear or favor, can make a start at reversing the erosion of professional standards. Captain Fishback needs to be heard.

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