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Never Give A Life, Or Take A Life,
For A Lie

A Call to American Generals to
Respect the Rights of our Troops

by Veterans for Peace and
Asian Pacific Islanders Resist

On July 19, 2007, Veterans For Peace issued a call to all American generals to uphold their oath to defend the Constitution, an oath which requires officers and commanders to respect the treaties and laws for which American troops risk their lives. In an open letter on the illegality of preemptive war, the veterans stated: "A commander who knowingly orders troops to participate in crimes against peace betrays himself and those who serve under him or her."

The letter was delivered, along with copies of the Constitution, the U.N. Charter, the Nuremberg Conventions, and the Army Field Manual, which promotes the right to disobey illegal orders, to commanding generals at U.S. military bases.

The Veterans For Peace campaign comes at a time when the U.S. military is passing through a crisis of integrity. Retired generals openly denounce the folly of the occupation. The number of GI war-resisters grows. Time magazine runs a cover story on low morale in the U.S. Army. Now, Veterans For Peace raise an issue rarely mentioned in Congress or the U.S. media -- the legal rights of American troops to protection of the law.

Founded in 1985, Veterans For Peace is the largest anti-war veterans organization in the U.S.

Dear General:

There are many kinds of betrayal in human affairs. But in the affairs of state, there is no greater act of disloyalty than to send young men and women to their deaths on the basis of fraud. No soldier should ever give a life, or take a life, for a lie.

All American ranking officers and commanders take an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. For self-serving generals, to be sure, the oath is a mere ritual, of no consequence to real behavior in war. But for generals of conscience and integrity (and here is our hope and reason for writing) their oath is a solemn obligation to the American people, especially to American troops, to abide by the law. Our men and women in uniform place great trust in their superiors. They risk their lives in the belief that they will not be used falsely, illegally, or for ill-gain.

On behalf of Veterans for Peace, we are writing to you -- we are making a public appeal to all American generals -- to honor your oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. In war as well as in peace. All of us, civilians as well as military experts, have an obligation to protect our troops from executive abuse of power. A number of prestigious generals -- like Major General John Batiste, former commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, and Army Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, recently retired -- are speaking out about the political folly of the occupation of Iraq. However, our challenge to you is not political, nor focused on the gross incompetence of command in Washington. We are not seeking better ways to manage an illegal invasion. Instead, we are calling on you to use your position of command and power to restore the constitutional basis of military service.

The Laws Are Clear

The legal status of the U.S. war in Iraq is not a mystery. Generals know very well that the occupation is based on lies, carried out in defiance of treaties ratified by the U.S. Senate. The Nuremberg Conventions explicitly repudiate the doctrine of pre-emptive war. The U.N. Charter, for which many of our parents and grandparents gave their lives on the battlefields of Europe, outlaws war as “an instrument of policy.” Every general knows today that the occupation of Iraq is “a war of choice.” And they also know that, except for special U.N.-sanctioned interventions, defensive necessity is the sole legal basis for war.

The Constitution, the object of your military oath, is unambiguous. It makes treaties “the supreme Law of the land.” Nor are American generals ignorant of their treaty obligations. The U.S. Army Field Manual states without equivocation: “Treaties relating to the law of war have a force equal to that of laws enacted by Congress. Their provisions must be observed by both military and civilian personnel with the same strict regard for both the letter and the spirit of the law which is required with respect to the Constitution and statutes.”

Your Troops Deserve Protection of the Law

There is no group of Americans with greater interest in the enforcement of international law than American troops themselves. The Geneva Conventions were codified in order to prevent unnecessary cycles of revenge and retaliation. Our youth pay a heavy price when their own rulers plunge them into operations beyond international law. Immediately after the Abu Ghraib scandal the infamous, retaliatory beheadings began.

There is another kind of protection that is rarely acknowledged. International and humanitarian laws protect us from ourselves, from what we can become when war powers are unrestrained. Laws protect our combatants from being forced to commit morally repugnant acts, the kind of deeds that burden the souls of soldiers for a lifetime. “War forms its own culture,” writes war-correspondent Chris Hedges. “War exposes the capacity for evil that lurks not far below the surface in all of us.”

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, in his historic address at Nuremberg in 1945 wrote: “Any resort to war is a resort to means that are inherently criminal. War inevitably is a course of killings, assaults, deprivations of liberty, and destruction of property. An honestly defensive war is, of course, legal and saves those lawfully conducting it from criminality. But inherently criminal acts cannot be defended by showing that those who committed them were engaged in a war, when the war itself is illegal.” Jackson went on: “If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them, or whether Germany does them....And we are not prepared to lay down a rule of command conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

As you know, General, many soldiers of conscience, who dared to speak openly about the immorality and illegality of the war, have been court-martialed and imprisoned. Their cases, dating back to 2004, raise serious doubts about the capacity of our soldiers to receive justice in our military courts. Five months prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal, a soft-spoken Army soldier named Camilo Mejia was visibly upset by the atrocities he observed during his tour of duty in Iraq. Repelled by the slaughter of civilians and the needless deaths of American GIs (all reported in Mejia’s riveting combat memoir, THE ROAD FROM AR RAMADI, 2007), Camilo gathered up his courage and made formal complaints to his superiors. He disassociated himself from the unrestrained brutality and carnage. Though he was rebuffed, he persisted. He wrote letters about specific wrongs. Commanders refused to listen and questioned his patriotism. Eventually Mejia was sentenced to a year in prison for speaking out, for telling the truth. His trial, General, was a travesty of justice. Judge Col. Gary Smith ruled that evidence of the illegality of the war was inadmissible in court, that international law is irrelevant, that a soldier’s duty is to follow orders, regardless of their legality. It is a sad day in military jurisprudence when a soldier of conscience is court-martialed, not for lying, but for telling the truth; not for breaking a covenant with the military, but for upholding the rule of law in wartime.

Please think about it, General. Had commanders listened to Mejia, had judges respected due process and the rule of law, the Abu Ghraib scandal that humiliated our troops might never have occurred.

The list of war resisters -- Eli Israel, Agustin Aguayo, Pablo Paredes, Aidan Delgado, Ricky Clousing, Kevin Benderman, to name a few -- is growing. The entire military system is now passing through a legal and moral crisis. The ongoing trials of soldiers of conscience take place in the aftermath of three Army scandals: the Abu Ghraib scandal that humiliated our troops; the Walter Reed Hospital scandal, that demonstrates Army disregard for the welfare and dignity of our veterans; and the official disinformation campaign around the death of Cpl. Pat Tillman. Notwithstanding overwhelming evidence of command involvement in the torture system of Abu Ghraib, no Pentagon civilian or senior military official even faces prosecution for the ignominy of Abu Ghraib. Veterans for Peace recently learned that General Antonio Taguba was forced to retire because his report was critical of the military system. Taguba was never allowed to investigate the commanders who ordered torture.

Nor are there any prosecutions around the Tillman affair. The refusal to court martial violators, combined with the eagerness to court martial whistle blowers, gives an impression that our judicial system in the Army is designed to protect officials from accountability. Far from restoring order and respect, the selective trials of soldiers of conscience only deepens disillusionment with our military institutions.

We respect your service to your country. But while we admire your experience, your special skills, your capacity for leadership, we do not overlook the legal and moral descent in which you are directly involved. The military is losing its moral credibility. Our entire democracy is in danger. Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, Franklin -- framers of our Constitution -- warned future generations of the inherent danger of military power, the tendency of all “standing armies” to become a menace to republican government. It is in that patriotic, Madisonian spirit -- a spirit manifest in the courageous stand of war-resisters -- that we address you today. The test of patriotism, for generals as well as civilians, is fidelity to our Constitution, not abject submission to a desperate clique of individuals mired in the corruption of empire.

We realize that, as a general whose decisions affect thousands of lives, you are in a very difficult position. You face the same dilemma that 1st Lt. Ehren Watada confronted when he learned about the systematic atrocities in the field and the duplicity of the administration. No doubt you feel a strong obligation to your Commander in Chief, and ordinarily expect to carry out his orders. But legal and illegal orders are profoundly different. When the requirements of law conflict with the policies of command, it is the law, not those who abuse their power, that must be followed.

Of course all military systems require discipline, top to bottom, and all warriors operate through a chain of command. But the doctrine of blind obedience died long ago at Nuremberg.

Nothing obligates commanders to commit war crimes, or to punish soldiers of conscience who refuse to participate in them. A general’s highest orders come, not from any individual, but from the people themselves, and the will of the people is codified in the Constitution. Nuremberg was not only about foreign adversaries, it was about all of us. No soldier, no officer, no general owes absolute allegiance to any military system. Once unrestrained rulers, in their arrogance and lust for power, place our military system beyond domestic and international law, the obligation of generals and officers to serve the military in its state of lawlessness is dissolved. Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “Whensoever the general Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void and of no force.”

What, then, are the obligations of American commanders to their own troops, when “leaders” in Washington, from behind their computers, cushioned from the carnage and consequences of their own decisions, continue an occupation in defiance of the U.N. Charter, in defiance of the social contracts which bind us together as a nation? Yes, it is easy to talk -- it is all too easy to mouth platitudes -- about “support for troops.” But it is impossible for generals to support their troops and also support the politicians who are lying to the troops and leading them to slaughter. There comes a time when a moral choice cannot be avoided, when the gross illegality of the war cannot be ignored, when silence in the face of lies is an act of cowardice. A commander who knowingly orders his troops to participate in crimes against peace betrays himself and those who serve under him or her.

You, dear general, are in a strong position to influence policy. You have great freedom of choice, a capacity for moral judgment in all phases of war. And there is no legal prohibition against a general who, while in uniform, takes action to fulfill his sworn oath to uphold the Constitution. Accordingly, we call on you to respect the rights of soldiers who, in good conscience, refuse to follow orders they reasonably deem to be illegal. The pending charges against Lt. Ehren Watada should be dropped. We also expect American generals to stop ongoing war crimes -- the “wanton destruction of villages and towns,” collective reprisals (like the siege of Fallujah), the use of heinous weapons like cluster bombs.

The Courage To Act On What We Know

Decades ago in the midst of France’s brutal anti-Muslim war in Algeria, the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre admonished French commanders and the French intelligentsia: “It is not right, my fellow-countrymen, you who know very well all the crimes committed in our name. It’s not at all right that you do not breathe a word about them to anyone, not even to your own soul, for fear of having to stand in judgment of yourself. I am willing to believe that at the beginning you did not realize what was happening; later, you doubted whether such things could be true; but now you know, and still you hold your tongue.”

The time has come, it is long overdue, for American generals of conscience to break their silence.

Published in In Motion Magazine July 17, 2007

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