In an exclusive interview with Positively Filipino in San Francisco a few weeks ago, the affable and soft-spoken Taguba, now 63, had none of the military airs one would expect from someone who devoted 34 years of his life to commanding troops. Questioning him was hardly a chore; he's comprehensive and forthcoming with his responses even if he started out joking that he would only answer yes or no.
It helped, of course, that he had a lot to say about what keeps him busy right now. He is actively helping the remaining 4,300 Filipino World War II veterans who still have not been able to collect their claims from the Filipino Veterans' Equity Compensation. He is likewise working with veterans groups in petitioning Congress to grant recognition to Filipino veterans and their families. Additionally, he will soon be a special ambassador of the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) to talk about senior care and healthy living to the Filipino American community.
What takes up a lot of his time, however, is his e-mentoring young people – both civilian and military – towards a productive life and a brighter future. The latter is the mission of the Pan Pacific American Leaders and Mentors Group, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that he and a group of retired military officials have set up to parlay their skills and experience towards guiding a new generation of leaders.
The inevitable question for someone who is retired: Is he writing a book? He was particularly adamant in his answer: “No, I'm not writing a book and I don't have plans of writing one.”
He explains, “It's just not me” to draw attention to himself; a book, he says, “would not benefit anyone,” especially after the unwanted international firestorm that was triggered in 2004 when he and his team of 22 investigators (which included one psychiatrist and three military lawyers) came out with their 6,000-page, very truthful, very graphic report of the abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees by U.S. servicemen and women in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Taguba is obviously resigned to being repeatedly asked questions about that sorry episode in U.S. military history. There was no hesitance in his responses, no visible anger and bitterness, which is quite admirable considering that it cost him his career. But then he is also quintessential military who understands that orders (unless patently illegal) are considered sacred missives that have to be followed and implemented.
And that was what got him inadvertently into the Abu Ghraib quagmire—when the worldwide media started to get stories and pictures of the happenings in that detention center populated by about 10,000 detainees, most of whom were picked up for cases not related to terrorism.
The Army had to do something to ferret out the truth and the culprits, and thus salvage its credibility. The order from above was to implement a thorough and truthful investigation, to be done within 30 days, with very clear and definite parameters—only the military units accused of abuse and torture will be investigated, no one else, definitely not anyone higher.
Since a one-star general was on top of that chain of command, logically, the investigating officer had to be at least a two-star. And on that day that the assignment was to be given, Major General Taguba who was based in Kuwait, was the one closest to the site. Call it fate or the luck of the draw but he was it, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Many stories have been written about Abu Ghraib and the “Taguba Report,” which was the first and most comprehensive account yet of a situation that the general himself describes as “very sobering, very disappointing, very distressing.” (About 17 more investigations of the same case were subsequently ordered, of varying truthfulness.)
To ensure his team's credibility, Taguba set up the investigating committee so that there would be “23 sets of eyes, not just one.” Each one read the same reports, heard the same testimonies as the others. The team had to work day and night interviewing all the personnel involved and writing up their findings. There were a lot of discussions on how best to present the facts. They also had to make sure that they would meet the deadline and their mandate, which was to do a comprehensive yet limited investigation of what was obviously the U.S. Army's disastrous set of events.
Taguba, as the leader, made sure that the 22 investigators were protected from career fallouts when the “shit hit the fan” as he knew it would from Day One. “This is big,” he realized after seeing the initial photos.
Did he know that Abu Ghraib would be a career-ender for him? “From Day Two, I knew that it was a lose-lose situation [for me]: If I lie, I lose; if I tell the truth, I lose.” What he did not anticipate was how big a loss he would have to endure.
If the Taguba Report had remained confidential as it was supposed to be, the general would not have had to suffer the consequences of his investigation. To this day, he says he still doesn't know who leaked the report to the media (“It wasn't me. What purpose would it serve me to leak it?”).
But when it did leak, the Defense establishment, including Donald Rumsfeld, banded together and took the official stance that they didn't know anything about the Abu Ghraib situation. As a result, Taguba became the fall guy and the subject of an investigation that required him to testify before Congress four times, only one of which was made public.
The media made much of Taguba's response at that time: “I'd been in the Army 32 years by then, and it was the first time that I thought I was in the Mafia.”
Veteran journalist Seymour Hersh in his comprehensive report in the June 25, 2007 issue of the New Yorker titled “The General's Report: How Antonio Taguba, who investigated the Abu Ghraib scandal, became one of its casualties” quoted Taguba: “From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity and selfless service. And yet when we get to the senior-officer level we forget those values. I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”
Shortly after the Taguba report came out, the general was reassigned out of Kuwait and assigned to Rumsfeld's office. Kicked upstairs “to be watched,” as observers said. That was in 2004.
In late 2006, the two-star general got the call that he knew was coming. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's Vice Chief of Staff, told him, “I want you to retire.” It was an order.
Now almost a decade later, Taguba remains convinced that reporting the abuses at Abu Ghraib was the right thing to do.
When asked if he would do it again, he unhesitatingly stated, “Yes!” He added, “It was about the character of our country, the character of our military profession.”
And when it comes to character, Major General Antonio M. Taguba definitely knows whereof he speaks.
Here he explains why he is Positively Filipino:
Video 1: Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba talks about working with Filipino American Veterans.
General Antonio Taguba: The one important one that we are still dealing with is thousands of Filipino American soldiers fought during the war, and after the war, the Army, the United States Army was trying to document them. In other words, put them on the roster. Well, not everybody was put on that roster, for whatever reason. I mean, it's not like today, where you can put it on an email and say, "Hey, we want to know if you fought during the war,” and that type of thing. When you are dealing with post-war in the Philippines, it takes a great amount of effort to try and do that.
Well, almost 70 years later, just today, our veterans who are putting their claims in for the Filipino Veteran's Equity Compensation, if you fought during the war and you can provide proof, you will get $15,000 if you reside in the US. If you can provide proof and you live in the Philippines, you get $9,000 for that. We still have about 4,300 that have submitted their claims, which had been originally denied, and they want to prove that they served during the war.
But, most of these veterans who are appealing, were not on that roster that I spoke to you about. So, the government's position, Army and VA, if you're not on that roster, you're not going to get your claimed approved. Even though you had documents to prove that you served. We are working around that policy to ensure that they are recognized for their war time service, regardless of whether they were on that roster or not, which is very, very restrictive.
Video 2: Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba talks about the Pan Pacific American Leaders and Mentors Group.
Taguba: We organized a group of retired officers, Army officers, in March of 2006. We were just having dim sum somewhere, and we were talking about how can we do succession planning as retirees and trying to gather all these young leaders in the military and also civilians to come up. Because we have this stigma about us, that we're pretty quiet, we don't want to make trouble, this and that. So I said, well, if we are going to be introverts about it, then we are not going to succeed. We need to get the youngsters to get it going.
So, we decided to form the Pan Pacific American Leaders and Mentors Group, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, all-volunteer group. Today, we are pretty successful. We're still on the website, you might say. We have members from Guam to Afghanistan. We're not a big organization; we're about 250 members worldwide, but we also have chapters in Seattle, Huntsville, Alabama, West Point, the Naval Academy, Hawaii. We just opened one in Kansas as well. So, what we're promoting is, we need to do more mentoring.
Video 3: Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba talks about the Abu Ghraib investigation.
Taguba: You know, torture was not our mission. It's not our policy, it's not our rule, but it was a very disappointing discovery when Abu Ghraib came into view of the news. At first, I was in denial that something like that was happened until I was picked to investigate. And it only took me, I'd say, maybe an hour, after looking at the photographs and visiting the facility near Baghdad that it was a reality. Very sobering. Very disappointing. Very distressing. All of the non-accolade words that you can...it was a matter of saying, well how do you explain this? Not just to my chain of command, but how to you explain this if it was disclosed worldwide, and that was in my thoughts at that time. So, we organized. I had to organize a team. There were 23 of us that I organized in short term. Had about a week to get better organized. I was given an order, a written order, that I will only state the facts to investigate the military police unit that was involved.
Nemenzo: And not to go higher?
Taguba: Yes, not to go higher.
Nemenzo: That was specifically stated?
Taguba: That was specifically stated. Just to investigate the unit. The implied mission was that you will not go outside your boundary. But, it was hard. When we interviewed over 50 people, almost 60 people, that something was not right, and I was only given 30 days to conduct the investigation. So from start to finish, 30 days. I was not going to be granted an extension, and then to explain the facts. No speculation, just facts. So, at the end of the day we had 6,000 pages. I would do it again.
It wasn't me that I was thinking about. I was thinking about my teammates. It was about the character of our country, the character of our military profession. What would it impact on them? How would this impact on them? And it impacted very heavily on our country, on the military fighting the war. It didn't make the war any easier. If you recall, we stayed there longer than we had to. And those people are vicious, those that we were fighting, they were vicious.
I mean, they could look at Afghanistan. They remember. Abu Ghraib was in the middle of a country that was in an insurgency, where family members were visiting their spouses that were detained at Abu Ghraib. But people will talk. And they are a civilized country, brutal as it may seem, but they have ways to broadcast it to the news.
Well, I thought, I mean I know that I was ordered to do something, and I was following an order to the best of my ability. To state the facts as I saw it. Then all of a sudden, some folks at the government, be it the military or even my cohorts, they didn't like the outcome of that report. Well, it is what it is. And then I get told I'm going to be investigated for doing my duty? I'm not a whistle blower. I didn't whistle blow anything. I didn't do this on my own. I did this on behalf of a command and a commander who told me, and put my on orders to do the investigation. And I did.
Video 4: Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba discusses what makes him "Positively Filipino."
Nemenzo: How are you Positively Filipino?
Taguba: How am I Positively Filipino? Well, for one thing, every time I look in the mirror, I look like I'm a Filipino person. Secondly, I've not forgotten my roots. Thirdly, I think we have a great opportunity of unifying, you might say, our community. Especially, here in the United States. So, we have to be positive about it, and not think things that may decry or disadvantage our community, because we have generations that we have to think about, and they have to represent us, and I think we have to be Positively Filipino about it.