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Remarks at the 46th Annual American Legion Washington Conference
Transcript of Remarks by The Honorable William J. Haynes II , Hyatt Regency Washington, Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Honorable William J. Haynes II
Remarks at the 46th Annual American Legion Washington Conference
Hyatt Regency Washington
February 28, 2006

Thank you, National Commander Tom Bock, for that introduction. And thank you National Adjutant Bob Spanogle, a good friend of mine, and of the Department of Defense, and of the men and women serving our Country in harm’s way all around the world.

I thank you both also for your sons who serve with our soldiers. Bob and I often compare notes about our sons – young men who raised their hands to serve, and who will follow the flag on behalf of all of us at home.

But let me say how humble I feel to be in this hall, before the heroes that you Legionnaires are, and heroes no longer with us that you represent. Let me spend a few moments describing why I am so grateful that you asked me to come.

The American Legion is responsible for much of what I am. I was fortunate to be a Boy Scout, and partly because of the Legion’s support of that organization I learned to tie a square knot and build a fire, to find leadership in humility, and to discover deep satisfaction from discharging obligations to my community. Boys State shaped me also. Because of the Legion, I learned civics as no classroom could teach it. As a government official I benefit from Boys State still.

But my debt to the Legion began much earlier. I had four uncles who served in World War II. One died in North Africa. One survived two torpedoed ships in the Atlantic, but never made it to America. Two returned to their homes in Winnsboro, South Carolina, to live long productive lives. My father, a retired Air Force Colonel, is a veteran of three tours in the Viet Nam war, and, of course, of the Cold War. And my younger brother, a retired Air Force Senior Master Sergeant, is a veteran of Desert Storm who earned a Bronze Star in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Those veterans who gave so much to me, in turn got much from the American Legion.

But my debt goes even further back.

In 1917, my grandfather, a shoe-maker in Fairfield County, South Carolina, raised his hand to fight in the war to end all wars. After driving an ambulance on the killing fields of France, he returned almost two years later, the same year that the Legion was founded.

That year, 1919, when the first Legionnaires pledged in this great institution of veterans to continue serving our Country, was four score and seven years ago.

Abraham Lincoln made those words immortal as he honored brave men, living and dead, who had struggled for a new birth of freedom; that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

So also are our men and women in arms now engaged in a struggle for a new birth of freedom, even as they fight the terrorists who attacked us so treacherously on September 11.

We are at war. We have been at war now longer than this country fought the Nazis or the Japanese war machine. It is, as some have said, likely to be a long struggle against an enemy that in many ways is unlike any our country has ever faced.

It is a war that has presented extraordinary challenges for people like me: lawyers working for the commander in chief and for our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.

This war thrust upon our Country the realization that we can not afford to treat the terrorists as mere criminals. It required us to confront the fact that, just as the domestic criminal laws are not sufficient to meet this terrorist threat, so also the traditional rules governing warfare between nation-states do not fit neatly.

Accordingly, we have had to grapple with applying the principles of the Geneva Conventions – treaties that mean so much to our armed forces and to the notion that we all benefit by retaining some civilized behavior in the barbarity that is warfare – while being careful that we do not destroy the very incentive structure that is the essence of Geneva.

Because our enemy despises the basic rules of warfare, such as the prohibitions against murdering innocent civilians and the requirements for combatants to distinguish themselves from the civilian population, it has not been easy to sort those detained as enemy combatants. As a result, we have devised appropriate screening processes and review mechanisms to balance fairly and in principled ways the need to protect America while also seeking to ensure we hold no one unnecessarily, even if they have taken up arms against us.

We lawyers have struggled along with our clients to develop appropriate guidelines for treatment and questioning of terrorists. The Department has from time to time adjusted its approach. But from the beginning and at all times the rule in the Department has been clear: even the terrorists must be treated humanely. And as National Commander Tom Bock has reported after his visit to Guantanamo Bay earlier this month, “the treatment given to these men who have vowed to destroy America is far better than what’s given to inmates at virtually any U.S. prison in America. It far exceeds the standards set forth by the Geneva Convention.”

At the direction of the President, we developed new procedures to try terrorists by Military Commission – a lawful option used by Presidents throughout our Country’s history, and endorsed by previous Supreme Court decisions.

And, while our uniformed men and women fight the war, we and our colleagues at the Department of Justice deal with an unprecedented quantity of litigation in American courts.

Thousands of Department personnel have expended hundreds of thousands of hours simply responding to staggeringly broad requests for war-related information that span the entire globe. Many of those requests then end up in court under the Freedom of Information Act.

Though only a handful of reported cases addressed the hundreds of thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war held in this country in World War II, there are now more than 200 habeas corpus cases involving over 300 Guantanamo detainees in US courts.

Some courts have forbidden the Department from returning enemy combatants at Guantanamo to their home countries without asking the court for prior approval and providing their lawyers and the court with information on the transfer or release.

Detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo have sued the Secretary of Defense and other Executive Branch officials seeking monetary damages from them personally.

Lawyers for some detainees have asked a state licensing agency to revoke the medical license of the military doctor who oversees medical operations in Guantanamo.

And this is but a sample of the war-related cases in court. I mention these as facts of life in war today, rather than as a complaint.

I have visited our wounded at Walter Reed and Bethesda. I have seen the folded flag presented to the widow and widower on the brown hillsides of Arlington. I have no complaints.

We are at war, but we are a country governed by law. As the Department’s lawyer, I insist that we operate lawfully. So does the Secretary of Defense.

Our President is stalwart on this. We will destroy this enemy, and will bring the terrorists to justice. In doing so, we will abide by the Constitution we swore to uphold and protect. We will act lawfully, and the Department will treat those it detains humanely. Our Congressional leaders have spoken on this as well.

These are times that remind me somewhat of Lincoln’s times. Even in a terrible war we must apply the rule of law. Lincoln was a president who kept his eye on the Constitution even in the darkest hours. So does this President. And so must we.

After all, what is embodied in that Constitution is what our young men and women are fighting for. And a world of freedom and the rule of law is what Al Qaeda and their supporters fear most.

I spend a lot of time in the Secretary’s office, and have come to know its features well. There are four opposing George Catlin paintings on opposite walls of the long office. In the center is a huge, hand-carved desk once owned by General Black Jack Pershing. Behind that desk – a desk with no chair because the Secretary prefers to work at an adjacent standup desk – is a painting of George Washington. In a small next-door room hiding his cot is a wall of photographs of him with such people as Dwight Eisenhower and Anwar Sadat.

But what I find most remarkable every day are these things:

On a small table is a piece of twisted grey metal mounted on a simple slab of wood. It is a piece of American Airlines Flight 77 that the Secretary picked up on 9-11 on his way back to the command center after helping carry out some of the wounded service members and civilian employees.

Under the glass of another small table is a ballot from Afghanistan, signed with gratitude by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. There is a companion ballot from last January’s election in Iraq. In both elections, huge percentages of the voting population of some 50 million newly liberated people braved the terrorists to begin to establish government of the people, by the people, for the people.

And under that same glass is a satellite photograph, taken at night, of eastern China, the Korean peninsula, and Japan. The photograph is stunning. From the electric lights far below, it shows bright, bright white to define the coastal boundaries of China, and Japan, and South Korea. But the northern part of the peninsula – except for one small light marking one city – is almost totally black. In showing those two items under glass to visitors, the Secretary likes to point out the knife-edge of light and dark that divides that peninsula, and the choices it marks.

That knife-edge marks where thousands of US soldiers serve. Some of you here today probably have served there. That boundary illustrates so dramatically the choices between free enterprise and a command economy, between freedom and tyranny.

The voters of Afghanistan were once on that darker side. And they chose, with their votes, to walk toward the light. As the President said here last Friday, “This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people.”

When historians recall the events of these times, I hope these times will be remembered as some of the great years of our history, a time when Americans, on the home front as well as the battlefront, rose to the challenge of their time and not only kept Liberty alive, but carried its light for millions of others around the world.

The people who are carrying out that mission are the men and women on the frontlines of freedom. To them and their families, and to the veterans who served before, we owe a great debt of gratitude for their sacrifice and service.

May God bless them and keep them safe, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.