‘Our sacred trust’

Col. Susan Sowers
37th Transportation Command

The recent illumination of what happened to Iraqi prisoners in the Abu Ghraib Prison at the hands of American soldiers has been shocking and terribly disappointing to almost every citizen of the United States.
Our honor and high ideals of who we are as ‘Americans,’ our collective identity, has been generally (tainted) sullied by the actions of a handful of people. Beyond the damage to our own self-image, who can truly calculate the potential future cost in retribution against American soldiers in Iraq, and on a larger scale, the degradation of America’s moral authority to assist internationally?
The ‘silver lining’ in these abuse revelations is in its potential for prompting us to do some self-reflection. One thing that quickly comes to mind is my firm belief, that those few misguided Americans do not redefine what it is to be an ‘American Soldier.’
Daily, our contemporaries in Iraq and Afghanistan are selflessly performing their duties throughout the combat zone and are shedding blood for the freedom of others.
Secondly, it reaffirms our Nation’s long-held position in the absolute importance that the Armed Forces continue to be founded on ethical principles. We, as members of the U.S. military, are agents of our government, and must be ‘grounded in values’ that reflect our national ethic.
Our leader development and training regime must continue to reinforce the message of treating others with dignity and respect – even our enemies. For those in the Army, our motto, ‘An Army of One,’ incorporates the idea that each person’s behavior matters – for the good or for the bad of those we represent. We must all do our part – making value-based choices, each day.
In my own personal reflection over these incidents, I’m also confronted with the realization that all of us are capable of doing horrible things. We shouldn’t be deceived; there is good and bad in all of us. These recent abuses by a few young Americans specifically highlight the temptation for the abuse of power that daily wars in each of us.
For those who serve in leadership positions in the military, these infamous abuses can serve as a ‘wake up call.’
We have been given a sacred trust, not only by the Constitution, but also by millions of mothers and fathers across the United States to properly train and lead their children, our Soldiers. Everyday, leaders have the opportunity to bring a blessing or a curse to those in our charge.
Understanding what constitutes an ‘abuse of power’ and then ensuring that our actions stem from an ethically-grounded inner foundation is critical to those in a profession where we potentially influence the life and death of others in our care. While the abuses of the guards in Abu Ghraib prison are shockingly apparent, I find the daily temptation for abusing power is typically much more subtle.
While the rank structure and tiered hierarchy of the military offers an effective command and control structure, this built-in hierarchy can tempt some to disrespect and mistreat those they outrank.
Those who fall into the trap of subtly abusing power, generally recognize it for what it is initially, yet when the whispers of conscience are ignored, these actions can be easily adopted as habit.
Perhaps this is the time for us to examine individually those behaviors that may constitute abuses of power over others.
Confronted by the recent pictures of just how bad abuse of others and the abdication of our core values can get, we are reminded of the power of our choices. Join me in a renewed effort to daily guard against the abuse of others in our care.