Opinion: John McCain, The Senate Torture Report and The Revolutionary War

December 12, 2014 9:38 AM
Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.)
Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.)

Those still searching for their moral compass after being confronted by the repulsive facts in the Senate’s report on torture should take a cue from the one man in Washington who actually knows what it is like to be beaten, humiliated, starved, and isolated — Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

When the controversial report was released Tuesday, McCain broke with his own party and spoke passionately on the Senate floor in favor of the release of the report. McCain said that the use of torture, “did much harm and little practical good,” adding that it “stained our national honor.”

When McCain says that such actions undermine America’s core values and beliefs, he is harking back to the very foundation of America. This is something that many politicians routinely do; often it is just lip service, but in this case it is not.

For example, during the U.S. Revolutionary War— with daily reports of heinous acts being committed by the British and their Hessian allies—John Adams wrote that despite being harrowed “beyond description [by the reports] . . . I know of no policy . . . but this—Piety, Humanity, and Honesty,” David Hackett Fischer cited in his book Washington’s Crossing. That came to be known by America’s Founding Fathers as the “Policy of Humanity.”

George Washington and other “American leaders believed that it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause. . . . American leaders resolved that the War of Independence would be conducted with respect for human rights, even of the enemy,” wrote Fischer.

That policy set a precedent that continued for decades as a key tenet of the American way of war—at least until 2001. American leaders at that time deviated from that legacy. Many of those policy-makers and practitioners of torture are presently offering their rationale and excuses on national news outlets. In this national conversation, every conscientious American needs to decide whether a policy of torture, or one of humanity is the right fit for America.

Those claiming that torture was the right fit for America in 2001–08 are today claiming the threat was perceived to be so high that extraordinary actions were required to combat an unprecedented threat. Apparently, the moral restraint of our Founding Fathers and subsequent generations who fought the Germans and Japanese in total wars did not apply in 2001, as we sought to bring swift justice to the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. At best the report, and the proponents of the use of torture can claim that “some” collaborating evidence was gained from the effort, but no major plots were foiled. Clearly, now 13 years after the policy was put in place, we can see that al Qaeda was not destroyed as a result of the program. Was it worth the moral damage to American values?

As a point of comparison to the abstract fight against non-state actors in the post 9/11 wars, the Revolutionary War was an existential fight that occurred right here on American soil. Thousands of colonists witnessed or experienced British brutality first hand. Their desire for revenge and mounting hatred for the British is easy to understand. So how did our colonial ancestors treat British prisoners that committed those acts of barbarity? With “Piety, Humanity, and Honesty.”

The policy of humanity required a great deal of restraint on the part of American leaders. Besides being morally correct, the policy had a strategic value that intelligent men like Washington and Adams understood: it dampened the British passion for war with America, especially in Parliament. Great American leaders in subsequent wars also understood the value of the humane treatment of captives. As evidence of the policy’s effect, as did many German soldiers detained in the United States during World War I and World War II, many 18th-century British and Hessian prisoners of war opted to stay in America, or found a way back after the war. They came to win our hearts and minds, but the tables were turned by the power American values.

On the British side of the fight, some leaders, such as British Col. Charles Stuart, lamented “Wherever our armies have marched . . . every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrevocable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measure will be able to eradicate,” wrote Fischer. American prisoners were subjected to horrific conditions, the worst of which were floating prison barges. The actions of some British units played right into the Revolutionary Americans’ hands. This begs the question: Who benefited most from the torture policy?

The, British in 1776­­–81 were like the Americans after 9/11, they were fighting an insurgency in a battle for hearts and minds. Each British blunder, or act of brutality, only pushed more Americans to support the revolutionary cause; ergo America’s policies in the past decade were used as al Qaeda propaganda to compel young Muslim men and women to take up the al Qaeda cause.

The U.S. strategic goal in the “Global War on Terrorism” was to eliminate al Qaeda and its associated movements. But did the CIA and the private contractors hired to conduct these actions help or hurt America achieve that objective? Beneath the noise of the current political debate, the only strategically relevant question is this: Did it reduce or increase the ranks of our enemies? A bit of “Piety, Humanity, and Honesty” are required to answer this question—qualities that seem to be lacking from many that are offering their excuses on network news today.

As imperfect as some claim the Senate’s torture report is, it undeniably is based on original records and source documents. No one is claiming that the actions reported are false, rather they are only saying that they “were necessary” or “we thought they were necessary based on the perceived threat.” Whether or not the intelligence gained was of any value is immaterial to the question of the morality of these actions.

McCain and others who say this is contrary to American values are in line with the core values of our founderss and American history. I would suggest that the decision to deviate from the core American values is exactly why the torture policy was a strategic disaster. Lest we forget — this is not who we are.

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan, USN (Retired)

Cmdr. Dolan teaches Strategy & War with the Naval War College’s Distance Education program, and history as an adjunct professor at the University of Maine. He is a former EP-3E/Special mission P-3 naval flight officer, and frequent contributor to USNI News and Proceedings. 

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox