A Military Perspective on Guantanamo

Guantanamo. The word conjures images and opinions from almost any person: the famous Colonel Nathan Jessup and the Marine Corps Security Force in “A Few Good Men” who stand guard on “that wall” staring down the threat of communist Cuba, vast tent cities of refugees, a detention facility holding “the worst of the worst” captured on the battlefields of our post 9-11 wars. Most people probably envision an austere, Spartan outpost. It is not.

I just returned from five days in Guantanamo. The base is like any other U.S. military post overseas. It’s a small piece of Americana. Families of military personnel live in base housing. Children go to the daycare facility or attend school at the Department of Defense school. There is Morale, Welfare, and Recreation, a network of services for military personnel and their families. They have access to a world-class fitness center, outdoor athletic fields, a dive shop, a marina and sailing center where people can rent boats, a radio station that broadcasts on three different frequencies just for the people on the base, an outdoor movie theater that shows new-release movies every night for free, and of course a McDonalds.

It reminded me of Army bases in Germany, or Marine bases in Japan. People go about their work and live in a foreign land where the base provides all the amenities of their homeland. This is a characteristic of our American empire since World War II. I felt a strong nostalgia, only three and a half years removed from taking off the uniform myself. I retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 after twenty years of active duty. Much of that time was spent overseas.

I spoke with many of the military personnel based there, either as part of Joint Task Force Guantanamo responsible for the detention facility, or as part of the “permanent party” of the base, who live there with their families for two to three-year tours of duty.

They are proud of their service. They are the most capable military in the world. They are volunteers. And their pride lies in a logic that they are serving their country, keeping it safe, and sacrificing for something bigger than themselves. Phil Klay summarized it best when he wrote “in some ways, joining the military is an act of faith in one’s country—an act of faith that the country will use your life well.”

Critical to that logic is that we act with conscience, that we are bound by our commitment to a set of ideals on which we all agree, that the U.S. military follows the laws of war, that as General Peter Pace wrote in the foreword to The Armed Forces Officer“honor, integrity, selflessness, commitment, and the greater good…define the ethos of our profession of arms, a philosophy that has moral leadership at its core.”

Which is why at Guantanamo, there is a strange cognitive dissonance. The detention facility of Joint Task Force Guantanamo has become a symbolic stain on what we stand for as a nation. It is a place where, yes, some years ago now, we forgot the importance of keeping “moral leadership at [our] core.”

I observed the tenth pre-trial sessions of the Military Commission convened to try the charges against Abd al Hadi al-Iraqi. Abd al Hadi is charged with committing serious violations of the law of war by conspiring with and leading others, as a senior member of al Qaeda, in a series of unlawful attacks and other offenses in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere from 2001 to 2006. These attacks allegedly caused death and injury to U.S. and coalition service members and civilians, and caused damage to or destruction of property.

Abd al Hadi was born in 1961 in Mosul, Iraq. An ethnic Kurd, he served in Saddam Hussein’s military, achieving the rank of major. He left Iraq in the early 1990s and went to Afghanistan, soon after the Soviets left. He was detained by the Turkish government in October 2006 and rendered to the CIA a few weeks later where he was held until he was transferred to Guantanamo in April 2007. While in CIA custody, he was assessed as being cooperative with the interrogators. During February 2007, CIA Headquarters discussed using enhanced interrogation techniques against Abd al Hadi, but eventually determined there was insufficient intelligence that Abd al Hadi possessed actionable information to justify their use.

Did we torture him? I don’t know, and the above paragraph is important, because the case against Abd al Hadi will hinge on what evidence the prosecution can show, and whether or not it is admissible. Why would it not be admissible? Because of the sad legacy of our decision to torture: at CIA black sites but also at Guantanamo (albeit several years ago). Any statements obtained by torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are inadmissible. This is the unique and troubling circumstance that hangs over the military commissions. Few legal prohibitions are more fundamental than the ban on torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

The proceedings I observed took only five hours, with prosecution and defense arguing back and forth about the essential “rules of the game” of the commission. In every other court, there is an agreement among all the parties about how the trial will proceed. There is a legitimacy and validity to the trial. Not so in the military commissions. The parties are still arguing about these normally mutually agreed to procedures.

I admire, respect, and feel great sympathy for the military and civilian lawyers, the military judges, the paralegals, and the platoons of support personnel working incredibly hard to make the military commissions work. They have a nearly impossible task: to find legitimacy and justice after we compromised it. We broke many of these men. We ran our own gulags. Some of these men may very well be the worst of the worst. But we tortured them. And now we seek to bring them to justice.

That is the challenge these people face at Guantanamo. To find legitimacy in the books of history, and also to seek justice. Our government, and our nation, wins whenever justice is done. But it may be difficult to find. It’s why I admire the diligence, work-ethic, endurance and determination they display. They are seeking to reestablish our commitment to moral principles, to help us once again find who we are. And it is through their efforts that we come to recognize in looking back on, and forward to, our experience at Guantanamo, we should work together to reaffirm our commitment to genuine justice. Senator John McCain famously said, it “isn’t about our enemies, it’s about us…We need not risk our national honor to prevail in this or any war.”

I fear history will judge us harshly.


Published on January 20, 2017


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