05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Investigating Bush-Cheney Torture Policies "By the Book"

In late 1941, my grandfather, Roger Hilsman, Sr., was the US Commander of one of the southern islands of the Philippines that was attacked by the Japanese. Obeying the orders of General Douglas MacArthur, my grandfather surrendered his command and became one of thousands of Allied POWs in Asia. He survived the Bataan Death March, the transit to Japan, and harsh years in a prison camp in Northern Manchuria. Although his prison diaries do not reveal evidence of outright torture by the Japanese, the intimidation from his captors was intense, and the conditions were stark. Many men died in his camp, and, throughout Asia, Allied POWs were subjected to torture and execution in violation of the Geneva Convention, which had been first enacted by the international community in 1864, and amended to cover the treatment of prisoners of war in 1929. Fortunately, my grandfather survived his years in the prison camp, and was liberated at the end of the war by my father, a recent West Point graduate who had fought in Burma with Merrill's Marauders, been seriously wounded, and then returned to fight behind Japanese lines with the OSS.

While my grandfather was deeply scarred by his prison experience and harbored a lifelong hatred for his Japanese captors, he was able to keep in mind the distinction between those Japanese guards who had treated him honorably as a fellow soldier, and those who had treated him as something less than human. He understood, for example, that it was their job to get information from him and his fellow prisoners -- even if it was as insignificant as the location of a hidden trowel for digging vegetables. And it was his job as a soldier to deny them that information. As an American officer, my grandfather understood about rules, discipline and punishment. In fact, as the ranking officer of the prison camp, he often had to mete out harsh punishment to the Allied prisoners under his command. But, true to the spit-and-polish ethos of the American Army, whatever was done had to be "by the book."

In the world of the prison camp, both the prisoners and their Japanese captors knew exactly what "by the book" meant. The Japanese knew about the Geneva Convention, and they heard regularly from the International Red Cross, even in Northern Manchuria. Whether they choose to abide by the rules was another matter, but the rules were clear. And, as my grandfather and all the other POWs throughout Asia and elsewhere learned, some of their captors obeyed the rules, while many did not. But the rules were clear, and after the war, trials were held to punish the offenders, all according to the rule of law. Even after their grueling wartime experiences, I doubt that my grandfather or most other POWs would advocate changing the Geneva Convention, either to strengthen or loosen the protections for POWs. His view, I believe, would be to punish those who broke the rules, and exonerate the others. This is a view that is shared, in large part, by most former POWs, including Senator John McCain.

Which brings me to the current debate over the Bush-Cheney torture policies and the initial reluctance of the Obama administration to pursue investigations into the development and implementation of these policies. While it is painful and politically divisive to look back at the failures and abuses of the past, it is a necessary ingredient not only for our democracy to function, but also to implement the change that the President has championed. It would be betrayal of the sacrifices of Americans like my grandfather to selectively prosecute the low-level offenders at Abu Ghraib and ignore the policy makers who set the violations of the Geneva Convention in motion. While I am not personally convinced by the legalistic exceptions to the Geneva Conventions that distinguish "detainees" captured during the invasion of Afghanistan from "prisoners of war," or the "exigent circumstances" argument that the Bush administration used to justify torture, perhaps there need to be exceptions carved into the Conventions. However, this will only get done if nations honestly investigate and prosecute violations.

I understand that this is not a top priority for the Obama White House, nor should it be. There are many more pressing problems at their doorstep, beginning with the economy, health care reform, the energy crisis and global warming, to name a few. Revisiting the torture policies of the Bush era should be the least of their concerns. But the White House should not stand in the way of legitimate investigations of violations of American or international law. It is the responsibility of the Justice Department -- free of political consideration -- to investigate and determine whether laws have been violated, and by whom. This may be a dirty job and it may take a long time, but it has to be done. And it must be done, as my grandfather would say, "by the book."