Tom Joad

For Those Who Seek Peace and Justice

Lawrence Rockwood

Lawrence RockwellDismissal of Army Captain Raises U.S. Policy Questions : Military: Haiti case illustrates conflict between following orders and belief in a higher duty to stop rights abuses.

by James Risen, Originally in Los Angeles Times
May 15th, 1995

FT. DRUM, N.Y. — The facts in the case of Army Capt. Lawrence Rockwood vs. the United States were never in dispute.

Both the defense and prosecution agreed that on Sept. 30, 1994, while serving with U.S. forces in Haiti, Rockwood left his post without authorization, sneaked out of the Army's secured compound and hitched a ride with a Haitian to the national prison in downtown Port-au-Prince. Brandishing his M-16 rifle, Rockwood single-handedly confronted the warden and demanded a list of the prisoners in order to prevent any human rights abuses before U.S. forces could take control of the jail.

The prison officials, part of the military dictatorship of Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras that was still in power, called Rockwood's bluff and complained to the U.S. Embassy. Rockwood was arrested and sent back to his base at Ft. Drum to face court-martial.
So it was no surprise that Rockwood was dismissed from the military Sunday after being convicted on most counts of disobedience, disrespect and conduct unbecoming an officer by a military panel of five senior officers. While Rockwood will not face any prison time, he will be stripped of his retirement and veterans benefits and will receive only one-third of his pay until his dismissal is reviewed by Maj. Gen. David Meade, commander of the 10th Mountain Division.
Yet Rockwood expected a court-martial from the moment he jumped the wall of the Army compound. He left a note on his bed saying he knew he was likely to face court-martial. He realized that the Army would be successful in focusing its case on the narrow issues of whether Rockwood disobeyed orders.

Yet for the U.S. Army and the Clinton Administration, the weekend verdict will not end the growing political furor over the Rockwood case, which has become a \o7 cause celebre \f7 for an odd alliance of human rights groups and congressional Republicans.

Human rights groups charge that the Rockwood case shows that Washington is still not prepared to deal with human rights abuses in the midst of U.S. military operations, while Republicans complain the case underscores how President Clinton is haphazardly asking the military to handle turbulent political problems best left to diplomacy.

Amnesty International financed Rockwood's defense and brought in former Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark as his attorney. The organization, which investigates human rights cases around the world, even considered whether to list Rockwood as a "prisoner of conscience."

Meanwhile, House Republicans have held hearings on the Rockwood case, and more are in the works.

But for Rockwood, a 15-year Army veteran who was serving as a counterintelligence officer in Haiti, the case was really about the conflict between the military's insistence that its officers strictly follow orders and a soldier's higher moral duty to investigate and stop human rights abuses. In interviews and during his testimony last week, Rockwood said that his case dealt with the same moral and ethical questions raised in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Nuremberg and Japanese war crimes trials after World War II.

In fact, one witness for Rockwood's defense was Hugh Thompson, a former Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam who violated orders by firing on U.S. troops who were killing Vietnamese civilians at My Lai. Thompson was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, and Rockwood testified that he kept a picture of Thompson by his desk at Ft. Drum.

The Army, however, portrayed Rockwood as a loose cannon, a "narcissistic officer" who was taking drugs for mild depression and who endangered himself and the fragile peace achieved between U.S. forces and the Cedras regime in the first days after the military landings.

Yet because the case raises so many awkward and potentially embarrassing issues for the military, the Army sought at first to keep the case quiet. The Army imposed a three-month gag order on Rockwood, preventing him from speaking to the press until earlier this year. He was then offered a chance to avoid a court-martial by accepting "non-judicial" punishment, the Army's version of a slap on the wrist.
But Rockwood rejected that offer and demanded a full court-martial so he could air his argument that the Army is ill-equipped to handle the human rights issues that now regularly confront it in operations from Somalia to Haiti.

"The Army doesn't know what it's doing when it comes to human rights. They have no effective training, and the officers try to ignore these issues," argued Rockwood. "But I think my case will do some good. I've been told the case is already being discussed and studied at the Army War College, as well as in law schools around the country."

Rockwood, 36, is a practicing Tibetan Buddist. He is described by friends and colleagues as an idealist who "always acts on his principles." He said he felt he was following the wishes of his commander in chief, Clinton, when he went to investigate human rights abuses at the national prison eight days after arriving.

Another excellent article is at the Socialist Action website.