Generals for Human Rights

January 26th, 2009

They didn’t look the part of tough-as-nails military commanders-just another group of smiley faces in business suits clustered behind a president and politely clapping as he signed some documents. Yet a big page in the history of human rights was turned last week, when 16 retired generals and admirals flanked President Obama while he signed executive orders on his third day in office to close the US War on Terror detention camp in Guantanamo, Cuba; end the CIA’s secret prison program overseas; “and requiring all interrogations to follow the noncoercive methods of the Army Field Manual,” according to The New York Times, which ran a prominent photo of the troop of retired brass hats.

While a number of former soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been protesting war tactics they detested at public events around the country, including launching the antiwar group Iraq Veterans Against the War during the 2004 presidential campaign, many of their former commanders were venting similar concerns behind the scenes. “One of them, retired Major General Paul Eaton, stressed that, as he put it later that day, ‘torture is the tool of the lazy, the stupid, and the pseudo-tough. It’s also perhaps the greatest recruiting tool that the terrorists have,'” The New Yorker reported on its Web site.

Eaton, a former commander in Iraq, told reporters in a conference call on Thursday, “that the Abu Ghraib scandal ‘immediately undermined me, my moral authority’ as he worked in Iraq with eight other nations to build up Iraqi security forces,” Bloomberg.com reported. “‘It created a far more dangerous environment for every soldier, every marine we had in Iraq,” Eaton said. Human Rights First, which has been working with retired military leaders who have been pushing for a change in policy, set up the conference call. Eaton places direct blame for Abu Ghraib on the Bush administration’s embrace of enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Another member of the group, retired Brigadier General James Cullen, a former member of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, told The New York Times that he was appalled by changes in military actions in recent years. “A wide circle of former military officers, he said, were shocked by the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo. ‘We were muttering to ourselves in the closet,’ he said. ‘We knew this was not the military we left.’ …

“The son of Irish immigrants, General Cullen, who will be 63 on Tuesday, had been active as a civil rights monitor in Northern Ireland, and through that work he had become friendly with Michael Posner, the president of Human Rights First. In discussing Iraq and Afghanistan, ‘I told him how disturbed we were by the breakdown in values,’ General Cullen said.” A group of about 40 retired senior officers began meeting on this issue in 2004 and tried to meet with every candidate for president last year, seeking a pledge to change policies, the Times and The New Yorker reported.

On the campaign trail in Iowa, a “group of military men, which included retired four-star Generals Dave Maddox and Joseph Hoar, lectured Obama about the importance of being Commander-in-Chief. In particular, they warned him that every word he uttered would be taken as an order by the highest-ranking officers as well as the lowliest private. Any wiggle room for abusive interrogations, they emphasized, would be construed as permission,” The New Yorker noted.

“Last month, several members of the same group met with both [Greg] Craig, who by then was slated to become Obama’s top legal adviser, and Attorney General-designate Eric Holder. The two future Obama Administration lawyers were particularly taken with a retired four-star Marine General and conservative Republican named Charles ‘Chuck’ Krulak. Krulak insisted that ending the Bush Administration’s coercive interrogation and detention regime was ‘right for America and right for the world,’ a participant recalled, and promised that if the Obama Administration did what he described as ‘the right thing,’ which he acknowledged wouldn’t be politically easy, he would personally ‘fly cover’ for them.”

For more information:

Behind the Executive Orders

Hooded Abu Ghraib Inmate Can Step Off That Box Now

An Honor Guard Comes Out for Obama’s Ban on Torture

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)


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One Response to “Generals for Human Rights”



  1. Tom |

    These are all honorable men, and I respect them for being willing to stand up for their convictions, even though many of their peers may not be happy with them. I’m also reminded how fortunate we are to live in a country where military officers, retired or not, can make such statements without facing a firing squad.

    I have to point out, however, that they would have exhibited more moral courage had they taken a stand while still on active duty, when their careers were at stake. That would have made a much more powerful statement, and it might have changed things.


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