Some Things Are Just Plain Wrong (United States Air Force Academy, Feb. 23, 2012)
Following is the text of a talk I delivered twice to cadets at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado during the two-day 19th Annual National Character & Leadership Symposium, February 23-24, 2012. – Ethan Casey
I want to begin by confronting you with a quote from someone being detained at Guantanamo Bay. “They will still have a problem,” he said. “All of the problems the U.S. has created will not fit on Guantanamo Bay.”
What’s striking is that the speaker is not a post-9/11 terrorism suspect or even a Muslim, but a Haitian – one of 14,616 Haitian boat people who were being held at Guantanamo Bay as of August 1994, when I read the quote in a news report. I was living in Bangkok at the time, working hard to establish a career for myself as a freelance foreign correspondent, reporting on countries like Burma, Cambodia, and Pakistan for newspapers like The Globe and Mail of Toronto and the Boston Globe. I was geographically almost as far from Haiti as it’s possible to be, but I couldn’t get away from it. I should mention that I’ve taken a very active personal interest in Haiti ever since I first went there with my father at age sixteen in 1982. That’s a long story, which I tell in a book I’ve just published titled Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti. In 1994 what was astonishing – and, for me, personally jarring and painful – was that the acute political and human crisis of that small and seemingly insignificant country in the Western Hemisphere was being reported daily for months in Asian newspapers like the Bangkok Post and the South China Morning Post. The reason for that, of course, is that the crisis was at least as much about the United States as it was about Haiti.
All of you who are cadets are too young to remember the tragedy of the Haitian boat people in the early to mid-1990s. Suffice it to say that at the time, early in the Clinton presidency, it was a very big deal indeed. The fact that you can’t be expected to remember or to know, without being told, either the contemporary or the longer-term significance of such a momentous set of events is obvious, but to me it’s disorienting and depressing. It’s also an illustration of the importance of studying history, so that we’ll know, for example, why it’s not only unhelpful to America but deeply wrong for a group of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan to pose for a photograph in front of a banner displaying the Nazi SS insignia.
What caused the Haitian crisis of two decades ago? You’ll get different answers depending on whether you ask Haitians like the one I just quoted, or American leftists who see Haiti as an ideological cause celebre, or professional thinkers in Washington, DC. I’ve spent thirty years listening respectfully to the full range of views, and this isn’t the place for me to share my own views. What I want to draw your attention to is the fact that the same 1994 issue of the Bangkok Post that ran a front-page article on the impending U.S. invasion of Haiti – an invasion I supported, and that I still believe should have happened a year earlier than it did – also ran a story on the U.S.-led embargo then being enforced on Iraq, which quoted an impoverished Iraqi as saying: “What does America think – that it can change the government? No way. I cannot buy shoes. I cannot buy trousers. May Allah damn Clinton and America.” I don’t know anything about that particular man, but what is important about him for our purposes is not that he’s a Muslim or an Iraqi or hypothetically a potential terrorist, but that he’s a human being who, because of a U.S.-led policy, was unable to buy shoes or trousers.
I’ve learned a lot from thirty years’ worth of travel in Haiti, Pakistan, and elsewhere worldwide. Above all, I’ve learned that the world is of a piece: that borders are artificial, and that truths that are true in Haiti or Pakistan are just as true everywhere else I’ve been, from Cambodia to Zimbabwe to seemingly placid Seattle, where I now live. The turmoil that’s beginning to erupt in American society brings this truth home, quite literally. My methodology as a writer is simply to show up and listen to people, to pay attention and take notes. As I look through the book I just completed, what strikes me is how many references there are, in many conversations ostensibly about Haiti, over many years in many different contexts, to the U.S. military and geopolitical presence elsewhere around the world, above all in Iraq and more recently in Pakistan. The world is of a piece, and America’s footprint on it is large and unavoidable.
For example, in January 1993, just before Bill Clinton’s inauguration, I asked the black American driver of my group’s airport van in Miami what he thought about the situation in Haiti. He replied: “Clinton got a lot to deal with right now, man. Somalia. Eye-rack. And Haiti. So he’s got to deal with those other places in the Middle East first. He can’t even deal with the economy. He’s got to put off Haiti for now.”
I asked him about Haitian refugees, the boat people who were dominating the news at the time.
“There’s just too many of ‘em here now, Haitians and Cubans too,” he complained.
“What would you do if you were Cuban?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I spent fifteen months in Vietnam fightin’ what they got: oppression. But if I was in their shoes? I don’t know. … I can’t see going to another country just to go to jail. Because that’s what it is where they keep ‘em: barbed wire, and head counts, and all.”
He was referring to Guantanamo Bay, and perhaps also to Miami’s own infamous Krome Detention Center, where later, in 2004, during Haiti’s next big political crisis, the 81-year-old uncle of the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat died after being denied his diabetes medication. Danticat tells that story in her painful and beautiful book Brother, I’m Dying.
But I’m not here to guilt-trip you either for being Americans or for being future military officers. Far from it. We all have different roles to play, and yours is an important one. And I’m aware that by talking about these things at all I’m probably skirting the edges of the institutional sensitivities guidelines that I was emailed before I came here, which specify that the Air Force Academy doesn’t “foster political positioning or expression.” Let me assure you that I’m not positioning or expressing myself politically. Rather, I’m trying to help you position yourselves as responsible and patriotic American military officers, by challenging you to become and remain aware of the full and global context in which you will do your work and represent your country.
Part of that context is something an American friend who was badly bruised from seven years living in Haiti once said to me. “When other people wave their countries’ flags,” she said, “you think, ‘That’s nice, they love their country.’ When you see the American flag, you know people are going to die.” As a patriotic American who loves my country, acknowledging the truth in that statement is painful to me. (To appreciate the crucial distinction between patriotism, which is a natural and admirable human sentiment, and nationalism, which is inherently aggressive, I urge you to read George Orwell’s classic essay “Notes on Nationalism.”) Two Haitian proverbs speak to my friend’s remark. One, from which I took my book’s title, says, “He who gives the blow forgets; he who bears the bruise remembers.” The other asserts that “The big guy does what he wants; the little guy does what he can.”
So this is the point in this talk at which I get around to directly addressing the subjects of this symposium, leadership and ethics. Some of you in this room are future generals and colonels. I’m sure most of you will at least be lieutenants, captains, and majors. You will be responsible to and for enlisted men and women, young Americans who as I speak are still children, who will be asked – or rather, ordered – to stare down moral dilemmas that, by rights, they should never be asked to confront. You will be responsible not only for their physical well-being but for the condition of their souls, which means that your own leadership qualities and personal morality had better be in good working order.
It’s helpful to remember that some moral dilemmas aren’t actually dilemmas at all. We all know darn well, as my late grandmother would put it, that some things are just plain wrong. For example, you don’t have to be a theologian or moral philosopher to know that it’s wrong to urinate on other people, no matter who those people are or what bad things they might have done. You can be an uneducated farmer’s daughter like my grandmother and know that. When a video surfaced in January of four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Afghans presumed – but not known – to have been Taliban, I wrote about it, and I took flak from many Americans, including readers who identified themselves as soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan, who were prepared to make excuses for them or to lecture me about how I should show more gratitude toward our proverbial men and women in uniform. But I know darn well that urinating on other people is just plain wrong. And, as a citizen of the United States of America, I don’t want American soldiers urinating on other people in my name.
I sent a draft of this speech for input to a thoughtful friend. He replied that my reference to the urination incident seemed “a bit jarring” – that it might seem as if that’s the only thing I wanted to emphasize to you. “I wouldn’t want to see you leaving those cadets thinking, ‘He came in here just to chastise us about the urination episode,’” my friend said. I considered removing or revising that passage, but then I woke up on Tuesday morning to news of violent protests in Afghanistan over copies of the Quran having been burned as refuse at Bagram Air Field. General John Allen has apologized and promised that the incident will be investigated, and any thoughtful person would acknowledge that the Qurans were not burned with any intent to offend. But ten years into a vastly destructive yet inconclusive war on the soil of a Muslim country, we need to do better than that. Such incidents need to not happen in the first place.
In the United States the constitutional theory, which I know is correctly drummed into you as cadets, is that we are governed by a civilian administration, to which the military reports obediently. Another thing all of us in this room know is that the Constitution stipulates that the president is the commander-in-chief not of the nation, but of the armed forces. That’s an important distinction that’s too often neglected and forgotten. The president is the military’s boss, and the nation’s free citizens are the president’s boss. As a free and patriotic civilian citizen, I’m going to continue to insist on these constitutional principles. But the hard truth, which I would forgive you for preferring to avoid, is that, as military officers, you will be the de facto representatives and leaders of the American presence where the rubber meets the road worldwide. With that status comes a very great responsibility, both to our society at home and to the people of the countries where you’ll be stationed.
He who gives the blow forgets, goes the Haitian proverb; he who bears the bruise remembers. Your moral responsibility, as leaders of the armed forces of the nation that gives many of the blows, is to work hard, against the grain of your privileged status, to remember, on behalf of those in this world who bear the bruises. Your responsibility begins with an obligation not to urinate on anyone, whether innocent civilians or enemy terrorists; nor to burn anyone’s holy books, whether intentionally or inadvertently; nor to let the enlisted soldiers under your command do such things with impunity. If anyone under your command does any of these things, you owe it to your country to punish him. Just as important, in a time of instant worldwide transmission of photographs and other information over the Internet, the military hierarchy must be seen to be punishing him.
Your responsibility as proud, patriotic American military officers goes far beyond that, of course. How far beyond is something we might discuss in the remainder of this hour, and that you must reflect on rigorously, now and throughout your careers. But surely where it begins is in demonstrating basic human respect for all the people you and those under your command will encounter in your work.
Ethan Casey’s book Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti was published in February 2012. He is also the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan and Overtaken By Events: A Pakistan Road Trip. He is currently planning a book of topical travel with the working title Home Free: An American Road Trip, for which he will travel around the United States during 2012. You can join his Facebook page or contact him directly.