That’s the old man in the picture above: Pfc. Paul J. von Ebers of the 66th Army Infantry Division, known as the Black Panther Division, in 1943. And, yeah, they had what might have been the ass-kicking-est insignia in the ETO:
But these days, my remembrance of the old man is marred by a moral and ethical debate he would have thought was long since resolved in favor of, you know, morals and ethics. Because in his day, and continuing until his untimely death in 1994, it was inconceivable that anyone in the United States of America would think torture was acceptable under any circumstances. Period.
After all, it was George Washington himself, the first commander of America’s military and the first President of the United States, who set the moral tone for the inchoate republic in 1776:
[L]eaders in both the Continental Congress and the Continental Army resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with a respect for human rights. This was all the more extraordinary because these courtesies were not reciprocated by King George’s armies. Indeed, the British conducted a deliberate campaign of atrocities against American soldiers and civilians. While Americans extended quarter to combatants as a matter of right and treated their prisoners with humanity, British regulars and German mercenaries were threatened by their own officers with severe punishment if they showed mercy to a surrendering American soldier. Captured Americans were tortured, starved and cruelly maltreated aboard prison ships.
[George] Washington decided to behave differently. After capturing 1,000 Hessians in the Battle of Trenton, he ordered that enemy prisoners be treated with the same rights for which our young nation was fighting. In an order covering prisoners taken in the Battle of Princeton, Washington wrote: “Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to Complain of our Copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren…. Provide everything necessary for them on the road.”
Later, in April 1863, when the country faced its next great existential threat, Abraham Lincoln issued General Orders No. 100, Instructions for Government Armies of the United States in the Field, known as the Lieber Code after its principal architect, Francis Lieber, Article 56 of which provided:
A prisoner of war is subject to no punishment for being a public enemy, nor is any revenge wreaked upon him by the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel imprisonment, want of food, by mutilation, death, or any other barbarity.
And so, by the time my father’s generation was called upon to save the world from fascism, America had a long-standing tradition of rejecting torture and inhuman treatment of its captives during wartime, even in the direst of circumstances. Which is why in World War II, when the fate of the world and the fate of the country literally hung in the balance, we did not depart from that tradition. Just ask the men who guarded and interrogated high-level German POWs at Fort Hunt, Virginia, who were honored for their service in 2007:
“We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture,” said Henry Kolm, 90, an MIT physicist who had been assigned to play chess in Germany with Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.
Blunt criticism of modern enemy interrogations was a common refrain at the ceremonies held beside the Potomac River near Alexandria. Across the river, President Bush defended his administration's methods of detaining and questioning terrorism suspects during an Oval Office appearance.
Several of the veterans, all men in their 80s and 90s, denounced the controversial techniques. And when the time came for them to accept honors from the Army’s Freedom Team Salute, one veteran refused, citing his opposition to the war in Iraq and procedures that have been used at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
The interrogators had standards that remain a source of pride and honor.
“During the many interrogations, I never laid hands on anyone,” said George Frenkel, 87, of Kensington. “We extracted information in a battle of the wits. I’m proud to say I never compromised my humanity.”
I’m thinking a lot about my father today, and the men and women of his generation – men and women who stared down Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito; men and women who literally saved the world, but who, even when the outcome was uncertain and the stakes were never higher, never compromised their humanity.
I’m thinking about this, in particular, in the wake of the obscene debate over whether information that helped locate Osama bin Laden had been obtained by torture – no, not “harsh interrogation techniques”; torture – and whether Pres. Obama’s success in “getting” bin Laden somehow justifies the Bush Administration’s illegal torture regime. No it didn’t, and no it doesn’t. As to the former point, today’s New York Times essentially puts the nail in that coffin:
[A] closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out. One detainee who apparently was subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations. But two prisoners who underwent some of the harshest treatment — including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times — repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier’s identity.
Glenn L. Carle, a retired C.I.A. officer who oversaw the interrogation of a high-level detainee in 2002, said in a phone interview Tuesday, that coercive techniques “didn’t provide useful, meaningful, trustworthy information.” He said that while some of his colleagues defended the measures, “everyone was deeply concerned and most felt it was un-American and did not work.”
But as to the broader point, regardless of whether torture is “effective” and regardless of whether information obtained by torture may have lead to bin Laden’s killing, let me say what the men and women of my father’s generation said when they faced much greater dangers: Torturing and abusing prisoners is simply unacceptable. It compromises your humanity and it is incompatible with the country we think we are. And if refusing to torture prisoners means we don’t always “get” the bad guys, you know what? So be it.
I cannot believe we are still having this debate. In 2011. As much as I miss the old man on a day like today, a part of me is glad he never lived to see this.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.