Bearing Witness to Virtue
Defending the honor of those in uniform.


David French

Diyala Province, Iraq Every now and then I get e-mails from friends and family members with subject lines like “Can you believe this?” or “This will make you mad!” Invariably they link to some form of radical rant that either slanders soldiers or so completely departs from the reality I see and experience on the ground in Iraq that I laugh out loud. I typically read and dismiss these messages. In a nation of 300 million, there will always be “those people” individuals so consumed with ignorance, dominated by hatred, and obsessed with the political cause of the moment that they lose all perspective. But as I prepare to wrap up my deployment and head back home, I’ve changed my mind.

We simply cannot let lies pass unopposed.

Those of us who have been here — who have spent a year (and typically more) of our lives in this place — must speak the truth. Unless we do, yesterday’s slander can become today’s conventional wisdom and tomorrow’s history.

One week ago, I opened one of those e-mails which linked to an insidious article not from some fringe blogger fond of words like “rethuglican” or “Bushitler,” but from a respected member of the mainstream media, a self-described conservative who has occupied space in the most coveted perches of political commentary. Andrew Sullivan, writing from The Atlantic Monthly’s website, compared Russia’s aggression against Georgia with the United States Army in Iraq with the following words:

Just imagine if the press were to discover a major jail in Gori, occupied by the Russians, where hundreds of Georgians had been dragged in off the streets and tortured and abused? What if we discovered that the orders for this emanated from the Kremlin itself? And what if we had documentary evidence of the ghastliest forms of racist, dehumanizing, abusive practices against the vulnerable as the standard operating procedure of the Russian army — because the prisoners were suspected of resisting the occupying power? (Emphasis added).

I was appalled. As an officer in the 2d Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (LTC Paul T. Calvert, Commanding) in eastern Diyala Province, I serve in a unit which is at the very tip of the spear in the Diyala Province, arguably now the central front of the war and one of Iraq’s bloodiest provinces. As a judge advocate, one of my core functions is detainee operations. So I know and have lived our “standard operating procedure.”

I first wanted to write to enlighten Mr. Sullivan about the way our soldiers truly behave. I wanted to tell him of the young men who risk death to capture men they could have killed. I wanted to tell him we are so careful with our detainees that the single worst injury ever suffered by any of the hundreds of men our squadron detained even momentarily was a scraped knee. I wanted to describe our procedures for collecting evidence — procedures so demanding that soldiers have braved IED-laden roads to obtain sworn statements from troops in the field so that detainees could be prosecuted according to the rule of law.

But I realized that all of that would be futile. I realized that Sullivan (and others like him) would slander the 99 percent of soldiers who do the right thing by reference to the 1 percent (or less) who commit crimes. And in the minds of many who inhabit Beltway coffeehouses, cubicles in Brussels, and university lecture halls, we could die doing right . . . but they will still define us by those who do wrong.