December 04, 2003, 8:45 a.m.
Failure of Command
The case of Lt. Col. Allen B. West.
Last October, one American soldier — a young trooper untrained in handling prisoners — was told to guard an Iraqi prisoner. In a small area confined only by a strand of wire, the soldier was told to watch the man, and to shoot him if he tried to get away. The soldier daydreamed, as young men tend to do, more than most; an instant later the daydream was over, the prisoner was near the wire, and the soldier did as he was ordered. He shot the man dead.
That soldier, a member of the Fourth Infantry Division, hadn't been trained in interrogation or other aspects of prisoner management. Instead of facing court martial for the killing, the soldier was thrown out of the army when the JAG lawyer made a deal.
A few months before that incident, around August 8, another member of the Fourth I.D. — an artillery officer and a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War — was assigned as a civil military-affairs officer in a hot zone in the Sunni Triangle. His job placed him in daily contact with local leaders, and his responsibility was to help them help the army, to run local elections, and stamp out the insurgents. The officer was told by the intel people that they had solid information, from three sources, about a plot to assassinate him. He wasn't very concerned, his attention focused on a scheduled local election only a few weeks away. His boss told him to stay off the streets for a few days, and he did. Readying to go back out on patrol on August 16, the lieutenant colonel was stopped at the gate by some locals who wanted to talk to him. The patrol went on without him, and was ambushed. No Americans were hurt, but the officer was convinced of the plot.
Between August 16 and 20, intelligence identified an Iraqi policeman who was allegedly involved in the assassination plot, and the man was arrested on Aug. 20. According to the officer's defense attorney, this is what happened.
Lt. Col. Allen B. West was told the policeman was uncooperative, so he took a few of his men to the interrogation area to see for himself, where he found the prisoner being questioned by two female officers. They told him the man was belligerent, and wasn't giving them any information. (Surprise, surprise. The idiocy of having women question male Arab prisoners is apparent to everyone except the army commanders.) West entered the room, sat across from the man, drew his pistol, and placed it in his lap. West told him he had come to either get information, or to kill him. The prisoner responded by smiling and saying, "I love you." The interrogation continued, and one of West's troops lost his temper and started slapping the man. West then had his men take the prisoner outside, where he again threatened the man, telling him that he would kill him on the count of five if he didn't tell what he knew. The prisoner refused, and West fired his pistol into the air.
The interrogation continued, but not the beating. After about 20 more minutes of useless questioning, West grabbed the man, held him down near a box full of sand used to discharge jammed weapons, and said something like, "This is it. I'm going to count to five again, and if you don't give me what I want, I'm going to kill you." West held the man down, counted to five, and then fired his pistol into the discharging box about a foot from the Iraqi's head. He began talking. Over the next few minutes, the prisoner gave very specific information about the plot. He named the conspirators, gave times and dates of the assassination plan, and even described how attacks would be made.
West and his men went back to their base camp. The lieutenant colonel immediately went to his boss, woke him up, and told him what he had done, and about the information he'd gotten from the Iraqi. West didn't say anything about what his troops had done. The boss — Col. Kevin Stramara — responded only by saying something like, "Alan, we need to take the high road." Leaving Stramara, West went to the medics' area, and ordered one of the doctors to examine and treat the prisoner. The doctor found the man bruised and scared, but not injured in any significant way. The next day, West briefed his own staff about the incident, and told them he took full responsibility. And that, West thought, was that. Apparently so did Stramara, who never even reported the incident.
The local election was postponed, the ambushes were avoided, and all was quiet until a disgruntled sergeant wrote a long, rambling letter to the commanding general of the Fourth I.D., Gen. Ray Odierno. The letter complains about harassment by Stramara, inconsistent uniform discipline, disrespect of officers by enlisted men, and mentions the West incident only in passing. The lawyers ended up with the letter, and that's where the PC Police took over.
According to a source close to the case, the staff judge advocate — the head lawyer of the division — at first didn't believe what the letter said about West, because she thought the incident would have been reported by Stramara, and it hadn't been. In the investigation that followed, two junior officers drafted a report. That report is tainted: It didn't go directly to the JAG or the commanding general, but went instead to Stramara, who made changes to it and then got the two junior officers to sign it.
Suddenly, on October 4, West was relieved of his command. On October 18th, two weeks to the day before he would become vested in his army retirement program, West was told he either had to resign or face court martial. Not wanting to lose his pension, West refused. His offer to resign after his benefits kicked in was rejected. An Article 32 hearing — the military equivalent of a grand jury — heard the charges against West in November. The results of that hearing are due any day, and may recommend felony charges against West.
What Allen West did was wrong. But there is nothing he did that warrants a court martial or a felony conviction: It's clear that the lawyers and the careerists in the Army have decided to make an example of him. But an example of what? After tossing out a soldier who killed a prisoner, how does it help to court martial another who intimidated a prisoner without injuring him, and actually got information that may have saved American lives?
No army can fight and win if the officers don't have the trust of their troops. Col. Kevin Stramara, West's boss — who didn't ever see sufficient import in what West told him the night of the incident to report it — testified at the Article 32 hearing. With about a dozen of his troops listening, Stramara was asked, "If you had to choose between following the rules and saving American lives, which would you choose?" His answer: "I don't know. I'd have to have some more details." While Stramara looks for those details, his men know their lives may be lost. His instinct is to cover his butt, not to save his troops. Of course the ends don't justify the means, but to crucify Allen West and leave Stramara in command will damage whatever trust the troops of the Fourth I.D. have for their commanders. Ask yourself: Would you like your 19-year-old son serving on a battlefield under this man? Or under the generals who trust his judgment more than Allen West's?
As West awaits the Article 32 results, there is a growing problem of clouded standards. It's no use to simply tell the troops that you have to follow the Geneva Conventions. They are, by necessity, in broad terms. Torture and abuse are outlawed. But does slapping a man or frightening him by discharging a pistol near him violate the Conventions? Hardly. Of the many e-mails I've received about this case — mostly from Marines — the question raised is almost always, "Why are they prosecuting this man?" Why, indeed.
It would be a great mistake to believe that the army's action on this case will be unimportant. The troops are following it closely, and the decision on whether West is court martialed will reverberate throughout the force. The community of warriors is both close and tight, and very well informed. They talk about these things, and take them to heart. I described the facts of the West case to a couple of the active-duty warriors I know, and their reaction was the same. They told me that court martialing West will damage the trust the troops place in their commanders. One went so far as to say, "They'll wonder what the hell Odierno is smoking."
We must keep faith with the troops by holding them to clear standards, and punishing those who violate them with judgment and consistency. Allen West is neither a hero nor a war criminal. Reprimand and retire him, and then rid the command of those who really made this mess: those who are more concerned with their image than with the loyalty they must show to their troops.