Reflections on the Army, Torture and General Sanchez

January 19, 2011

It is a cold and icy morning in DC and as I slipped and skidded my way to work I clutched the latest copy of Atlantic Monthly.  There are two must reads in the issue for those really interested in national security and terrorism, but for me they read as two parts of the same story.

The first is a survey finding that the best officers in the Army continue to leave after reaching company grade ranks:

“An exclusive survey of West Point graduates shows that it’s not just money. Increasingly, the military is creating a command structure that rewards conformism and ignores merit.”

The January/February 2011 issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

The best and the brightest are serving but they are also leaving.  The civilian sector is filled with great leaders who have served at all ranks of the military and sadly the military’s loss is society’s gain.  But it is an important bellwether when great young people are driven out, and they leave not necessarily because they are lured by better offers, or because of fatigue with multiple deployments, but as a sign of their confidence in the system and who the system chooses to promote.

There are cycles in the life of all institutions and when an organization hits a trough, it often reflects poor leadership at the top, cynicism, and a sense of being part of what General Edward Meyer once called “a hollow army”.

The second piece is another ode to fate of General Ricardo Sanchez.  (Truth in advertising – General Sanchez has backed a truth commission which Amnesty International also supports, and he has at times shared a stage with Amnesty supporters.)

There are aspects to his story that strike a chord; his admirable all American rise from very humble roots to be the highest ranking Hispanic officer of his generation, both of which speak to the Army’s relative meritocracy, and his personal determination.  Unfortunately my admiration stops there. Ricardo Sanchez was complicit in one of the worst abuses in recent US military history, and worse, was part of an effort to sweep it under the carpet.

While he has acknowledged the need for accountability up the chain above him, and supported the need for a commission, he appears to have forgotten about his own substantial role in the occupation of Iraq and the abuses that followed.  The transfer of interrogation techniques, including the use of dogs, from GTMO to Abu Ghraib happened on his watch and with his blessing.  According to the Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees:

“Interrogation policies approved by Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, which included the use of military working dogs and stress positions, were a direct cause of detainee abuse in Iraq. “

The US military is many things, but it is not a rogue or ill disciplined organization, it is the reverse.  It is for that reason that Abu Ghraib will always remain a strain on the US reputation, because we have never fully addressed the lie that it was entirely the work, the imagination and the actions of a few bad apples on a boring night shift.

As the bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee Report carefully noted in December 2008, the culture, the direction and the policies set by the Administration and the Rumsfeld Defense Department, at the highest reaches, fed and nurtured and fostered the abuse at the bottom.

“The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own.  Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO.  Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody.  What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.”

The military is an organization built on the skeleton of the chain of command, and his part in the corruption of that chain is the lasting legacy of Ricardo Sanchez.  He was not alone, nor was he the most, nor the least culpable.  But when you assume any position of authority, along with that authority comes responsibility for your actions, and for those of your subordinates.  Your wishes are their actions and their acts are your responsibility.  When you look into the faces and conduct of your subordinates, you look into a mirror, and what you see is a reflection of your character and your leadership.

When he looks in the mirror I wonder what General Sanchez sees?