Lieutenant Colonel West, Right or Wrong


J.D. Pendry


There is much discussion about the method used by LTC Alan B. West while interrogating and Iraqi prisoner.Much of that discussion supports the action take by LTC West.Some of it even labeling him a hero who took action necessary to save the lives of those he led.Itís easy in this case to come down on the side of LTC West and convince ourselves that the end achieved justified the means used to achieve it.But, does it?Thatís the important question we must resolve, each of us individually and all of us collectively.The answer at which we arrive defines who we are as individuals and as a people.My objective here is not to convince you one way or the other, but to ask you to think critically before you answer the question.Was LTC West right or wrong?


Rules, laws, and standards for conduct.


American soldiers receive training on the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war and are instructed unambiguously to adhere to the rules.

Article 3

In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:

1. Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

To this end the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:

(a) Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;

(b) Taking of hostages;

(c) Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;

(d) The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples. -Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War

Training on this subject comes early in ones military career and is reinforced often.We abide by these rules, even when our enemies do not.Some point to this as a weakness of ours because those with whom we often engage do not abide by these rules and likely would not even if aware of them.The argument contrary to that one is that it is much more difficult to maintain discipline and high standards of conduct during times of adversity than it is to take another route.

"I did not want to expose my soldiers to a possible attack," he said. "When they told me they were not progressing I decided to go along. I asked for soldiers to accompany me and told them we had to gather information and that it could get ugly.

"I did use my 9 mm weapon to threaten him and fired it twice. Once I fired into the weapons-clearing barrel outside the facility alone, and the next time I did it while having his head close to the barrel. I fired away from him. I stood in between the firing and his person."
Ė LTC Alan B. West, quoted in the Washington Times by Rowan Scarborough


You must place emotion aside and resolve in your own mind whether or not LTC West went against his training and violated Article 3 of the Geneva Convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war.


If we support LTC West, do we condone other similar actions?


Some enlisted soldiers are facing courts martial as Iím writing this for mistreating POWs.One of those originally charged accepted an other than honorable discharge in lieu of courts martial.


CAIRO, Egypt - U.S. military prosecutors have decided to prosecute three [enlisted] soldiers from Pennsylvania on charges of abusing Iraqi prisoners of war, an Army spokesman said FridayÖ.The charges grew out of an alleged incident May 12 at a U.S. detention facility, Camp Bucca, in southern Iraq. The three soldiers, from the 320th Military Police Battalion, based in Ashley, Pa., are accused of punching and kicking Iraqi POWs while escorting them to Camp Bucca. ÖThe soldiers have said they acted in self-defense, that conditions were chaotic at Camp Bucca, and that guards had been harassed and assaulted daily by unruly prisoners.Ė Associated Press, November 14, 2003.


I havenít heard anything about this one in the national news coverage.If we accept LTC Westís actions as justified, what do we do in cases such as this and more importantly future ones?Can we have a double standard? It may be a great leap from this to something as serious as a Mi Lai, but is it Ė really?An Army survives because it adheres to absolute standards and insists on the exercise of self-discipline to maintain them.


What is an Army without discipline?


A disorderly mob is no more an army than a heap of building materials is a house. - Socrates


When rules are selectively applied, then there are no rules.When there are no rules, there is no discipline.The resulting breakdown can be catastrophic, especially in a conflict where our enemies aim to widen the gap between those we aim to help and us.


Leaders are the example for the led.


Soldiers go where they are led.Look at armies throughout history and youíll find that they were indeed a reflection of their leaders.The question that we must resolve is did LTC West set the example we want soldiers to follow.If we support his actions then the answer to that question is yes.Iím left with a thought.That thought is what would LTC West do if he walked in on an enlisted interrogator threatening a prisoner by firing a weapon near his head?


There is a great deal to think of when considering this question, but we owe it to all soldiers and Americans to think through our answer clearly.Itís incredibly difficult to remove emotion and critically think our way through this, but we must.Whether you adamantly support or condemn LTC West sends a message.Ensure that you understand the message you send and itís ramifications.


Copyright © J.D. Pendry, 2003, All Rights Reserved