Friday, August 7, 2009

The Guantanamo Officers' Club

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About 20 years ago I had the privilege to interview Gen. George L. Mabry, the second most decorated soldier in the history of the U.S. Army, at his home in Columbia, S.C.

Mabry had been awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroics in World War Two. The young captain had already earned a chestful of ribbons for his "Saving Private Ryan" performance at Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. Only the legendary Audie Murphy earned more medals.

But five months later, in the Huertgen Forest near Schevenhutte, Germany, Mabry, 27, raced past his forward observers to cut through some mine-rigged Concertina wire.
Clearing a path for his soldiers, and he then captured three enemy bunkers in succession, killing three German soldiers, disabling another with his rifle butt and another with his bayonet. He captured nine other Germans.

You can read the entire citation at the Medal of Honor site, here.

What you will not read in his citation is what he told me in his quiet study, only months before he died in 1990.


It was blurry-hot outside. You could hear the cicadas beyond the closed blinds.

His men, he recalled, were enraged as they came upon haggard American prisoners who had been tortured by the Germans.

One day a junior officer retaliated, executing a group of German POWs. The lieutenant was a West Point graduate, and Mabry, the son of a minor league catcher, had gotten his ROTC commission at a tiny Bible school in South Carolina.

But Mabry broke him on the spot.

"You fight like hell during the battle," he lectured his men, "but when it's over your enemy is due the privileges of a prisoner, just like you and I are. I will not countenance the murder of a POW and will immediately relieve any other officer I suspect of carrying it out."

The atrocities stopped. But his main point was that an officer's primary duty is to maintain control of his men. It didn't matter that the Germans "deserved to die." Executing them was murder.

Mabry came into my mind while I was reading the transcript of an interview with a former Guantanamo guard, Brandon Neely, for the documentary "Torturing Democracy."

Produced by perennial award winner Sherry Jones, "Torturing Democracy" won a top award Tuesday from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.

I get the sense that a lot of people bray on this subject of torture without ever listening to the guards talk about it themselves.

The ones that bray and clap after listening to the guards, well, that's another story.

Here's Neely, talking about his time at Gitmo:

"The situation on the block was that a detainee had called a female MP 'bitch' a couple times. For punishment, the IRF [Immediate Response Force] team was called upon to enter the cage and hog-tie the detainee. The female MP was very upset, yelling 'Whip his ass!' ... The whole IRF team was on top of him hitting, punching, and kicking him. It seemed like a long time, but in reality it lasted 15-20 seconds."

I don't know about you, but that made my skin crawl. It was hardly the worst thing that happened at Gitmo, much less Abu Ghraib. But here again was a bunch of GIs totally out of control.

Sure, the guards were mad. The 9/11 attacks had been carried out only six months ago.

So what? Is the one-day trauma of 9/11 somehow harder to control than six years of the Nazis and Japanese?

Where were the officers who are supposed to step in and stop such bedlam?

Were they in air-conditioned offices, looking the other way, blocking their ears, playing cards, writing e-mails to loved ones?

Why did it take an FBI agent, Jack Cloonan, to say No?

What kind of officers have the Army (or Marines) raised?

Who's responsible for this? Forget about Donald Rumsfeld, John Yoo and the rest of the Top Six at risk of being arrested now if they step on European soil.

They "set the tone?" So what?

And let's put aside for the moment the hapless enlisted men and women being scape-goated for these things, as bad as they acted.

They're not innocent, but where were the lieutenants, captains and majors? And where are they now? Why isn't Congress calling them to explain how they ignored their oaths?

Malcolm Nance is a former master instructor and chief of training at the U.S. Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school, known as SERE, whose techniques were turned on their head and used against prisoners.

In other words, Nance is a tough guy -- really tough. Go look at his picture on the documentary site. Read what he has to say.

Nance, author of a book on the Iraqi insurgents and fluent in five languages, including Arabic, is disgusted by what happened at Guantanamo, Baghram, the CIA secret sites and, of course, Abu Ghraib. He went through "enhanced interrogation techniques" himself, including water boarding -- as part of his own training. It's torture.

SERE was taught to "high risk" U.S. personnel - combat pilots, behind-the-lines operators and so forth -- who might be captured, as he puts it, by "totalitarian evil nations, who disregard the Geneva Convention and human rights."

"How it got to Guantanamo is a crime," Nance says in the film, "and somebody needs to figure out who did it, how they did it, who authorized them to do it, and shut it down ..."

He adds, "because our servicemen will suffer for years."

Gen. George L. Mabry, I am sure, would agree.

You calling him a sissy?

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