Torture’s lasting damage

Earlier this week, Army Maj. Ian Fishback, a West Point instructor, visited Seattle’s Town Hall to speak of the great unspoken, America’s un-American legacy of torture.

Fishback, an eye-the-devil officer, aimed to reconcile the Washington, D.C., rhetoric in support of the Geneva Conventions and what he witnessed with wartime detainees. Chatter on the exigencies of war, of human rights that fall away, doesn’t square with the professional training of a West Point grad. But things fall apart.

“Don’t confuse malevolence with incompetence,” Fishback said.

And so Fishback did what conscientious citizens do. He documented his concerns, and he wrote a lawmaker, U.S. Sen. John McCain, in Sept. 2005.

“While I served in the Global War on Terror, the actions and statements of my leadership led me to believe that United States policy did not require application of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan or Iraq.” Fishback wrote. “On 7 May 2004, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s testimony that the United States followed the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and the ‘spirit’ of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan prompted me to begin an approach for clarification.” That search for clarification was through a glass, darkly.

“Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment.”

Fishback’s letter gave rise to reforms, throwing light on dark corners. The abstract nature of torture became abruptly real. The legacy extends to soldiers who return home to Snohomish County, women and men who sacrificed. For those who watched or participated in the great unspoken, the trauma is permanent.

Fishback was joined by a scribe who brings it full circle, journalist Joshua E.S. Phillips, author of “None of Us Were Like This Before.” Phillips retraces the experience of a conventionally trained tank battalion and what happens when the uninitiated are thrown into counterinsurgency and detainee tending. The fallout is devastating. American soldiers freighted by depression over detainee abuse. Torture boomerangs. It all began with the undoing of Geneva, Phillips said.

Northwesterners change the things we can, and veteran services is the place to begin. The best think-locally approach would enhance counseling and establish a Veterans Treatment Court in Snohomish County. It’s the very least we can do.

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