Duty, Honor, Country: Ian Fishback and the Idea of America

Duty, Honor, Country: Ian Fishback and the Idea of America

Duty, Honor, Country: Ian Fishback and the Idea of America

This uniformed whistleblower sacrificed his life for this nation no less than the several thousand who fell in battle.


One day prior to Thanksgiving, newspapers reported that Ian Fishback, a graduate of West Point and veteran of America’s “forever wars,” had died at the age of 42. No cause of death was given.

Should a memorial honoring the US troops who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan one day grace the Washington Mall, Major Fishback’s name will surely deserve to be included—despite the fact that he died years after leaving active duty. He sacrificed his life for this nation no less than did the several thousand who fell in battle.

For a brief moment in the early years of our post-9/11 wars, Fishback achieved a measure of fame (or, to some, notoriety) by calling attention to the torture and prisoner abuse practiced by US forces in the field. He was a uniformed whistleblower who took seriously the values of “duty, honor, and country” he had learned at West Point. A classic straight arrow, Ian found intolerable even the slightest deviation from what the soldierly code of conduct required.

Encountering credible allegations of widespread misconduct by US forces, Fishback—as was his duty—brought those allegations to the attention to members of his chain of command. When they tried to brush him off or suggested that pursuing the matter might adversely affect his career, he refused to be silenced.

With his own superiors thereby complicit in a de facto coverup, he forged on, bringing the matter to the attention of human rights organizations, members of the press, and eventually sympathetic legislators such as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). The eventual upshot was congressional passage of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, prohibiting the “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” of any person detained by the US government. In January 2006, President George W. Bush grudgingly signed into law a bill that should rightly have been called the Fishback Act.

That same year, Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential Americans included then-Captain Fishback and quoted a letter he had written to Senator McCain: “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is America.”

Not long thereafter, however, Fishback’s personal and professional life began to unravel. An inability or refusal to compromise imposes burdens that can become unbearable. When I subsequently invited Ian to contribute to a collection of essays on military dissent that I was commissioning, I was unaware of the trials he was enduring. He had demonstrated impressive moral courage at a moment when such courage had been in notably short supply: That’s what I wanted him to write about.

Ian accepted my invitation and eventually submitted an essay. The result differed radically from what I had expected. In it, he charged US government agencies and senior US military officers with subjecting him to ongoing persecution of the most vicious sort. The essay named names, singling out several very senior general officers as his chief tormentors. Yet it lacked the specific detail needed to make it credible. Reluctantly, I deemed the essay unpublishable. When I notified Ian that we would not be using his piece, he did not reply.

I do not today regret that decision. But with Ian’s passing and knowing more about the travails he has borne in recent years, I find myself haunted by two passages from that essay. In the first, Ian recalled being told by a senior officer at Fort Bragg that “nothing sticks to people in the Beltway.” That officer’s point: The military itself is innocent of blame; when bad things occur in distant war zones, it’s the politicians who get away with murder.

Ian wrote that he found this statement “extraordinarily dishonorable.” Yet that officer’s effort at buck-passing was not entirely off the mark. Civilian leaders do demonstrate a remarkable aptitude for dodging responsibility when things go wrong.

Of course, in our era of very long and futile wars, nothing much sticks to senior military commanders either. Even today, the accountability that Ian sought in 2005 remains missing in action, as the recent, lamentable conclusion of the Afghanistan War reminds us. The generals who presided over this massive failure have gotten away scot-free. In effect, they have conspired with the politicians to evade responsibility.

The second passage that sticks with me is the sentence with which Ian concludes his essay. “America is not free,” he writes, “and the Constitution is a model of American hypocrisy.” Reflect, if you will, on the gap between the bitter note of despair in that indictment and Ian’s prior professed willingness to sacrifice his life for even the “smallest part” of the America idea.

He kept his part of the bargain. Have we? Surely, there is food for thought there—and perhaps cause for weeping.

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