n 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, U.S. Marines faced the task of processing thousands of Iraqi prisoners of war. They did so with dignity, grace, and humanity. POWs expressed astonishment that the same Americans who had fought so fiercely in battle were now treating their prisoners so kindly. What those POWs did not initially expect (or even understand) was that the Americans would follow Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention, which protects captured military personnel, guerrilla fighters, and civilians. Geneva applies from the moment a prisoner is captured to the moment he or she is released or repatriated. One of its bedrock provisions is that prisoners cannot be tortured. In fact, a prisoner can only be required to give his name, date of birth, rank, and service number.
In 2003, Iraqi prisoners were treated very differently. At Abu Ghraib prison, detainees were beaten, stripped naked, confined in small spaces, sexually humiliated, and threatened with dogs by U.S. Army soldiers and civilians. This violated our national values and subjected our country to worldwide condemnation.
Respect for the rule of law is a bedrock of military effectiveness, and so is a strong moral code. In 1996, the Marine Corps introduced a culminating event into the recruit training syllabus: “The Crucible.” The Crucible is a rigorous fifty-four-hour field exercise demanding extensive teamwork and the application of everything a recruit has learned. Getting through it requires not only physical stamina but also a sense of moral standards, particularly the core values of honor, courage, and commitment. Marines, in short, are trained to do the right and moral thing. They are not trained to torture.
Abusing prisoners of war is not only immoral and illegal but also unhelpful at producing good intelligence. Some have suggested that torture might be necessary in a “ticking bomb” scenario. Even in an extremely unlikely circumstance of that sort, however, there is no reason to think that the information would be any more accurate as a result of torture. As Senator John McCain has avowed, “If you inflict enough physical pain on someone, they will tell you anything they think you want to know.”
Condoning torture or even simply condoning practices that are inconsistent with our values puts our troops at greater risk and diminishes America’s moral authority across the globe. Marine General Jim Mattis stated in 2003 before the invasion of Iraq, “We can be your best friend, or your worst enemy.” Like many generals, Mattis has used harsh words and encouraged his Marines to be tough. What he has never condoned, however, is torture. We shouldn’t either: it is illegal, inhuman, and morally wrong.