FOR ONE 83-year-old veteran of World War II, it was the searing memory of a Japanese prisoner who helped turn the tide on Iwo Jima. For a 40-year veteran of Army intelligence, it was a trip to the battlefield at Gettysburg. For all 43 retired generals and admirals, it was a combination of moral outrage and deep disgust over President Bush's proposed legislation on interrogating terrorist suspects that propelled them into unfamiliar territory.
"None of us feels comfortable speaking out publicly," said retired Rear Adm. John D. Hutson, who served as the Navy's judge advocate general from 1997 to 2000 and presided over the JAG corps' 1,600 members. "That's not the nature of what military officers do . [But we] care very, very much about the country and the military — and that's why [we] are speaking out."
The group of retired flag officers first came together in 2005, when a dozen of them signed a letter opposing the nomination of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general for his role in developing Bush's policies on torture in the war on terror. Late last year, they supported Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) ban on cruel and inhumane treatment of detainees in U.S. custody anywhere in the world.
And last week, the Republican senators with whom the retired officers are allied in a fight against Bush's proposed legislation to weaken the spirit and the letter of the Geneva Convention won a compromise with the administration. According to the agreement, all forms of torture would be banned, including waterboarding, which White House officials had insisted wasn't real torture, although it was one of the Gestapo's favorite techniques.
The retired officers believe that the negative consequences of the president's anti-terror policies could have been avoided if the administration had followed traditional military practices. Retired Marine Maj. Gen. Fred E. Haynes, 83, is a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1945, he was a captain in the regiment that seized Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima and raised the U.S. flag there. In March of that year, his unit found two U.S. soldiers dead, apparently victims of torture. On March 17, about 10 days before the battle ended, a Japanese soldier, wearing nothing but his boots and a cotton jock strap, stepped out of a cave with his hands up. He had read one of the leaflets Americans were distributing in artillery shells that promised that anyone who gave up would get his wounds treated and his stomach filled.
The soldier surrendered to a lieutenant who spoke no Japanese. The lieutenant called his company commander to ask what to do with the prisoner.
"As he was talking," Haynes recalled hearing from soldiers in his unit, "a Japanese sniper apparently got a good aim on him and the bullet penetrated his helmet at an angle, scooted around inside the helmet and dropped out the back." Miraculously, the lieutenant was uninjured.
"In good conscience, he could have shot the Japanese [prisoner] dead," said the general, because the soldier could reasonably have concluded that he had been set up. "But he didn't."
Instead, the lieutenant waited for the company commander to join them. He subsequently discovered that French was a language he shared with the prisoner. Speaking French, the Japanese man offered to help clear out caves nearby.
When the prisoner was interrogated by two Marine interpreters fluent in Japanese, they quickly determined that he was the chief code clerk for the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima, an extraordinarily valuable catch.
"He not only knew the situation on Iwo, but he had good insight into the situation on Okinawa, which we were to invade on April 1 and did. He even knew a fair amount about the [Japanese army's] situation with respect to China," Haynes recalled.
The prisoner was immediately sent to the headquarters of Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, and from there to Washington.
"The moral of the story," said the general, "is we Americans have been so thoroughly imbued with the idea that you have to treat prisoners humanely — and this [story] is an example of why. It is an illustration of how by treating an individual decently you are much more likely to get any information you might want — and it's more likely to be correct."
Retired Army Brig. Gen. David R. Irvine spent 40 years in the Reserve as an intelligence officer, spending much of that time teaching the rules of interrogation to soldiers, Marines and airmen. He remembers a visit to Gettysburg, where he lined up with 125 other officers in front of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, from which they retraced Pickett's Charge.
"Everything there is completely flat," Irvine said. "By the time you get 50 yards out [you're] right in artillery range of the Union line. And you've got a mile and half to go on foot [to reach the Union soldiers]. As stragglers who survived found their way back to Seminary Ridge, Lee was riding his horse on that line and apologizing: 'It's all my fault.' He sent a letter of resignation to [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis, who refused to accept it. And the point of that whole exercise was command responsibility. That's a powerful lesson."
It's a lesson these retired officers think the administration doesn't get because no higher-ups were prosecuted for the abuses uncovered at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. "Tailhook was a very painful time for the Navy," Hutson said, referring to the 1991 sexual misconduct scandal. "The Navy was not treating women with the respect and dignity that they deserved and had earned. But speaking of accountability, we had a chief of naval operations who resigned; we had a secretary of the Navy who resigned."
Retired Brig. Gen. James P. Cullen was chief judge of the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. "I grew up in an Army where the rules were very clear and where serviceman and women had no question about what their obligations and responsibilities were under both the Geneva Convention and our domestic law," he said. "When you have a winking-and-nodding policy [as was the case at Abu Ghraib], that just brings about the consequences that we came to view at [the prison]."
What further fuels the officers' outrage is that the policies they believe have undermined the military were mostly formulated by men, like Bush, who have not seen combat.
"[Vice President Dick] Cheney made mention in the days after 9/11 that he wanted to operate sort of on the dark side," Cullen said. "Here was a guy who never served, and now something terrible had happened, and he wanted to show that he was a tough guy . So he's going to operate outside the rules of law. Bad message."