I have avoided writing regarding the reporting of CIA torture practices for a while because of my current role as an Episcopal priest. But then honor, integrity and courage finally got the upper hand.
These ideals, drilled into me during Army basic training, followed me during the 12 years I served as an officer through combat in the Middle East, years in Central America (where I sometimes feared for my safety more than in combat) and in peacetime. They have remained with me as a civilian post-Army.
In basic training (and in subsequent military schools), we were taught that the United States did not resort to torture for three reasons: If we tortured, it would give our enemy combatants carte blanche to torture us, it did not produce reliable intelligence and, most important, as Americans we were of the highest moral and ethical standards, standards that gave us the authority we exercised in our role to promote and protect democracy in the world.
“We do not torture, gentlemen, because American honor is more important than any single one of us,” my drill sergeant said. Because we practiced these standards, the world trusted us to do the right thing, even when no one was looking.
Then I heard former Vice President Dick Cheney say on “Meet the Press” about the unhonorably, cowardly use of clandestine CIA torture under his watch, “I’d do it again in a minute.” I suppose Cheney was on sick-call the day his basic training instructors spoke of torture. Oh, yes, I forgot, Cheney received five military deferments because, as he told the Washington Post, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.”
Now I read about Cheney’s cronies, the Koch brothers, funding the restructuring of American history curriculum to teach American “exceptionalism.”
Exceptional nations and people live by honor and integrity, exercising the moral courage to do the right thing even when no one is watching, even if that means setting aside one’s own personal gain. Yes, war is messy, and I have personally practiced the messiness of war having killed others and been shot at. But there is a line between honor and dishonor, between doing the right thing and the expedient thing.
We have a long way to go to regain any claim to being exceptional, beginning first with a hard, honest look at our dishonorable practices then doing the hard, right things necessary to change them.
Kevin A. Johnson