As a personal preface to tonight's letter, I'd like to emphasize that I do not intend this letter to stand as a sweeping indictment of anything other than war itself. I do not think that all soldier are war criminals, and I do not think that all those who commit the kinds of horrible acts I'm writing about are necessarily responsible for their own actions. I know I have a number of readers who are serving or who have served in the armed forces; I have tremendous respect for them, and for all our troops, which is why I don't believe they should be sent into situations like Iraq and Afghanistan. It's also why I do believe that those who put all of them at risk by violating the rules of war and of common decency should be held accountable, be they soldiers, commanding officers, or the civilian leaders of the military at the DOD or in the White House.
Dear Mr. President,
As a student at Boise State University, I was lucky enough to take classes from a gifted professor who had a friendship with Seymour Hersh. Mr. Hersh gave a lecture at our school that year, and, the morning before, spoke with the thirty or so students in my class directly. Our discussion was mainly about the recent revelations, brought to light by Mr. Hersh himself, about the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib. I recall thinking, at the time, that Mr. Hersh's legacy of bringing the most intimate horrors of war to the public's eye was a testament to his tenacity as a reporter, but not to any increase in the brutality of America's wars. Mr. Hersh, who would have still gone down in history a journalistic icon if he'd retired after breaking the story of the Mai Lai massacre, continues to bring us the sad news of our own war crimes, this time on your watch. Battlefield executions (or, for that matter, prisoner abuse and the killing of civilians,) are probably nothing new in the history of the American military; one only need read Vonnegut's account of World War II to see that, even when fought for noble and just causes, war cannot be waged without these kinds of brutalities.
How does your Christianity allow such conduct? How does your humanity? The evidence mounts, daily, that the wars we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, (wars which, I grant, you did not start,) are bloody, costly, and doing far more harm than good for all involved. There must be a clear sense, in the field, by the troops, that their commanding officers right up to their commander in chief will not allow, condone, or, most importantly, ignore, the violations of human rights and international law that continue to be uncovered. This expectation must be clear, public, and enforced even at the levels of high command. I respect the men and women who serve our country in uniform, sir, if anything I count them among the victims of these wars, but when even one of them kills a prisoner in cold blood, they do so in my name, with my country's flag on their arms, and I am just as responsible for it as they are. And, even more to the point, Mr. President, so are you.
A distinction Mr. Hersh made to our class about the awareness, higher up the chain of command, as to what was going on at Abu Ghraib, was echoed years later by another professor, this time at the University of Washington. Discussing international law, both emphasized that the standard for culpability is when those in power knew, or should have known human rights abuses were occurring. As much as I love international law, this is one instance in which my first concern is not the legality of your behavior but the morality of it. I don't know, and will likely never know, if you condone or even order these battlefield executions, but I doubt very much that you do. I do know that you are the leader of this military and I elected you, in part, with the hope that you would curtail the human rights abuses by US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by the only means that I know for sure will accomplish this; by bringing them home.