On the eve of Memorial Day 2007, Vice President Richard Cheney addressed the graduating class at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. Dick Cheney’s generation was called to service in a war in Indochina. Dick Cheney had “better things to do.” In his remarks, Cheney states:
As Army officers on duty in the war on terror, you will now face enemies who oppose and despise everything you know to be right, every notion of upright conduct and character, and every belief you consider worth fighting for and living for. Capture one of these killers, and he’ll be quick to demand the protections of the Geneva Convention and the Constitution of the United States. Yet when they wage attacks or take captives, their delicate sensibilities seem to fall away. These are men who glorify murder and suicide. Their cruelty is not rebuked by human suffering, only fed by it. They have given themselves to an ideology that rejects tolerance, denies freedom of conscience, and demands that women be pushed to the margins of society. The terrorists are defined entirely by their hatreds, and they hate nothing more than the country you have volunteered to defend.
For more than two hundred years, America’s citizen-soldiers have been called to duty to defend and uphold the Constitution. America’s armies gave birth to the ideas enshrined in the Geneva Conventions. America’s political leaders made them the law for the world. Now a vice president of the United States presents these things as apparent weaknesses or vulnerabilities; as a foolish legacy not to be carried forward. In so doing, he dishonors the memory of those who fought and died to uphold these values.
And it’s worse than that. The honor of our nation’s armed forces has been stained by the introduction of the hideous practice of torture. One man before all others is the author of this perversity: Richard Cheney. Others were complicit. But the initiative and drive came from Cheney and continue to have their source with him. Richard Cheney is a war criminal who has betrayed a sacred legacy. His appearance at West Point was an affront to the institution, and to its motto: duty, honor, country.
So, as Memorial Day arrives, let us remember Americans who served whose lives and examples show the grave error of Dick Cheney and the radical falsity of his pronouncements.
Let us remember George Washington, the nation’s first commander in chief, who made the humane treatment of prisoners the essence of his army’s honor; who held that no prisoner should ever be subjected to shame or ridicule for his religion, and ordered that Americans in uniform would respect the absolute freedom of conscience and confession of all those in their custody.
Let us remember Abraham Lincoln, who saw the importance of America’s moral example in the world as the bearer of Washington’s legacy for humane warfare; Lincoln who gave us General Orders No. 100, the progenitor of the Geneva Conventions, including the standing order that torture would never, under any circumstances, be permitted.
Let us remember Francis Lieber, who advised Lincoln and crafted these rules, a veteran of the battle of Waterloo, the father of soldiers wearing both blue and gray uniforms in the Civil War, including Major Norman Lieber, a wounded hero of the Civil War, head of the Law Department at West Point, and law of war advisor to President McKinley, who paved the way for the Hague Convention process.
Let us remember Theodore Roosevelt, who led the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War, but also who mediated the Russo-Japanese peace and who launched and drove the process leading to the Hague Convention on Land Warfare;
Let us remember Dwight David Eisenhower, who led Allied Forces to victory over the Fascist menace, who pushed for a restatement of the Geneva Conventions to address the horrors of World War II, to give teeth to the resolve that these tragedies would never be repeated, who reminded us that “Peace and Justice are two sides of the same coin.”
Let us remember the many soldiers and officers still unknown who have stood for the values of their nation in bravely opposing the policies of torture and abuse imposed by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and the many soldiers and officers who have suffered repression as a result, and especially Col. Ted Westhusing, the Army’s leading ethicist and Capt. Ian Fishback, both West Point alumni, who had the courage to speak out against the mistreatment of prisoners.
The notion of honor in America’s military is not gone. But it is under heavy siege today. Memorial Day is the time to stand on the side of those who would uphold the best of the past, and against those who would adopt the ways and thinking of the enemy.