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Burkle Center Senior Fellow Gen. Clark Comments on Torture

Burkle Center Senior Fellow Gen. Clark Comments on Torture

The Washington Monthly, March 2008

"To win we'll have to live up to the values we profess, the belief in human rights, equal justice, fair trials and the rule of law."

This article was first published in The Washington Monthly.
By Burkle Center Senior Fellow Gen. Wesley K. Clark (ret.)

Torture—the word evokes images of dark, damp dungeons and outlandish punishments and pain. But torture can take many forms, and it lives today. Incredibly, Americans are part of it. And we must put a stop to it.


Torture is illegal, ineffective, and morally wrong. The United States has signed numerous treaties condemning torture and abjuring its practice. Those treaties are the law of the land. And, yes, waterboarding is torture: in the past, we convicted and punished foreign nationals for torture by waterboarding. There are no legal loopholes permitting torture in "exceptional cases." After all, those were the same excuses used by the torturers we once condemned.

The honor of the American man-at-arms is one of our most potent weapons. It is enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. It encourages our enemies to surrender to us on the battlefield. It protects any of our own soldiers who may have been captured. It encourages noncombatants and civilians to trust us and cooperate willingly. And it does not countenance the abuse of captives in our care.

We have known this from the outset of the Republic. General George Washington emphasized the proper treatment of Hessian prisoners during the Revolutionary War, reasoning that we might win them over. In many cases, we did just that. During the Civil War, we issued the Lieber Code, emphasizing that torture to gain confessions or information was never permissible. Ever since, it has been the standard to which the American armed forces have adhered. During World War II, we trained interrogators to elicit voluntary information from our adversaries, and it worked. Today, the FBI is firm in its belief that proper interrogation doesn't require torture and that better information can be obtained without it.

Something in the American soul has always demanded fair treatment and respect for the individual. Perhaps it was our flight from the repression of the Old World and the practices of European monarchy. We were different. We expressed it in our Declaration of Independence. We captured it in our adaptation of English common law, in our trials by juries of peers, and in our spirit of justice. We were a better nation for it, more respected, more influential, and more secure. Certainly, we committed historical wrongs that today we wish we could set right, but overall we advanced, step by step, striving to live the values we professed.

Until now. Until weak, fearful leaders had so little belief in our values and principles that they gave away our birthright and proud claim in order to follow a shadowy emulation of the very dictatorships and tyrannies we had struggled against. For shame, America, that we aren't brave enough and strong enough to live our values.

Today, in the struggle to finish off the extremists plotting against us, it won't be torture and fear that win the day for America. Far from it. Nations that torture end up despised and defeated. No, to win we'll have to live up to the values we profess, the belief in human rights, equal justice, fair trials, and the rule of law. These ideals are potent weapons. They will give us allies, friends, information, and security—but only if we live them.

We've done it before. In the thrust and parry of the cold war, America's adherence to proper standards and international law won us respect, allies, friends, and, ultimately, the influence that helped bring down the Soviet system. And we can have the same success in our fight today. We just have to make more friends and fewer enemies. And in such a strategy, there's no place for torture. Or for those who would torture.

Burkle Center for International Relations