October 17, 2021

Prisoners in the War on Terror: A National Writers Series Event

By Clark Miller | April 15, 2017

In the age of global terror, should we care how our military treats its prisoners? That question forms the backdrop for a discussion between author Eric Fair and retired Marine Major General Michael Lehnert at the National Writers Series at Traverse City’s City Opera House on Fri., Apr. 28, at 7pm.

America has long been known for its humane treatment of POWs. In the last days of WWII in Europe, German soldiers threw down their weapons and scrambled toward the Western lines. They had one goal in mind: to surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians.

It was a wise choice. For many prisoners, capture by the Soviets meant nearly two decades of forced labor.

By comparison, the nearly half million German POWs housed in some 700 camps across the U.S. had, by their own accounts, good food and adequate housing – and no forced labor or torture. Of their own accord, many prisoners even worked as day laborers on local farms to earn a bit of money.

Fast forward more than half a century to the 9/11 attack followed by decades of American involvement in simmering wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as the rise of ISIS and those inspired by its ideology of hate.

In some quarters, attitudes about the treatment of prisoners had changed.

President Donald Trump has publicly endorsed torture and vowed to fill the prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba with “some bad dudes.”

For Eric Fair and General Lehnert, this misguided view is at odds with American principles. Patriots both, they have publicly argued for a clearly defined, humane detainment policy in keeping with Geneva Convention protocols.

Eric Fair: Consequences
Eric Fair is a former Army translator who in 2003 and 2004 served as an interrogator for private contractor CACI International at Abu Ghraib prison and other sites in Iraq. Photos from Abu Ghraib emerged in April 2005. They showed the world that “enhanced” techniques were used to wrest information from Iraqi prisoners.

Fair’s book "Consequences" shows how he came to feel deep personal shame for what he saw and did, even though he was not involved in more extreme forms of prisoner mistreatment. A religious man, he came to reject the notion that torture can ever be justified. 

“I am a torturer,” he has said. “I have not turned a corner or found my way back. I have not been redeemed. I do not believe I ever will be. But I am still obligated to try.”

He disagrees with those who justify torture because “it works”; i.e., produces important and reliable information. “I'm not sure why we've gotten to this point where we start to talk about the effectiveness of torture, as if that makes any difference whatsoever,” he said. “Torture is wrong. Americans, all Americans, should know better. That's what makes [America] attractive; [it] is the way we do things, it's the example we set.”

Fair describes in detail the infamous “Palestinian chair” used to force prisoners into excruciating stress positions for long periods. He and a colleague tried out the chair themselves for a few seconds to understand how it felt.

“What begins as a searing burn in the calves and quads evolves into a tearing sensation in the hamstrings and lower back,” he explained. “You sweat, you shake, you can’t breathe. It is a violent and frightening pain. It’s torture.”

Ultimately, 11 U.S. soldiers were convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib. But Fair refutes the notion that these were the acts of just a “few bad apples.” Instead, he shows how illegal detention practices reflected a pattern of thinking that can be traced all the way up the chain of command to Donald Rumsfeld, secretary of defense under President George W. Bush.

As for Fair’s former employer, a federal class action lawsuit alleging abuse at Abu Ghraib by CACI International’s employees was dismissed by a federal appeals court in September 2009.

General Michael Lehnert: Guantanamo
In 2002, Marine Major General Michael Lehnert was placed in charge of building and then commanding a makeshift detention center at Guantanamo. During his tenure as commandant, despite intense pressure from Rumsfeld, he did his best to ensure that Geneva Convention protocols on the humane treatment of prisoners were followed. In particular, he drew the defense secretary’s ire by inviting the International Committee of the Red Cross to assess conditions at the prison. 

Looking back, Lehnert calls the facility a “blot on our history.”  

“It’s a question of what we stand for as a country,” he has said, “and [that] starts with our Constitution.”

Lehnert, who graduated from Central Michigan University in 1973 with a degree in history, held 13 different commands during his career as a Marine, including leadership of 5,000 Marines and sailors during the initial invasion of Iraq. He was the subject of Karen Greenberg’s book The Least Worst Place, a book used as a study in ethical decision making.

In 2010, he received the National Peacekeeper Award from the National Conflict Resolution Center.

Tickets for the discussion between Fair and Lehnert are available online at cityoperahouse.org, by visiting the City Opera Box Office at 106 E. Front Street (Mon.–Wed., 10–5pm) or by calling (231) 941-8082, extension 201.

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