Photo: Major Ian Fishback in conversation at a dinner hosted by CERL as part of its conference, “The Weighing of Lives in War: Combatants and Civilians in the Jus in Bello” (2014)

Eulogy for Ian Fishback

CERL is honored to present the following blog series that pays tribute to the life and legacy of Major Ian Fishback. Ian was a valued member of the CERL community and participated in several CERL events and activities. Ian died on November 19, 2021, at an adult foster care facility in Bangor, Michigan.

Ian graduated from the United States Military Academy in 2001 and served as an Army officer until 2014. He gained prominence in 2005 when he reported systematic detainee abuse in Iraq to Senator John McCain’s office. These allegations led to the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005. After separating from the military, Ian went on to receive a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Michigan in 2021.

This blog series aims to showcase Ian’s contributions to justice, military ethics, and the rule of law, as well as to illuminate the challenges affecting active duty military personnel and veterans. Other posts in the series are available here.—Note from the editor

Eulogy for Ian Fishback

I first met Ian Fishback in the summer of 2011 when I gave a lecture in a summer program in which he was studying in Aarhus, Denmark. I saw him regularly thereafter, as he was a highly active and much admired member of a younger generation of just war theorists who emerged in response to the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ian had fought as an officer in both, with a total of four tours of duty. The issues discussed in the lectures, conferences, and workshops on the ethics of war at which we met were, for him, not so much a set of intellectual challenges but literally matters of life and death that had been part of his daily experience. His purpose at these events was not to give a dazzling philosophical performance or to improve a piece he was writing for possible publication in a prestigious journal but was instead to achieve a better understanding of problems that he and other members of the military had confronted and would continue to confront. He sought better guidance, both for himself and for others, particularly his students at West Point, than he had had when he fought in wars about which he had come to have grave moral doubts.

One of his former students, U.S. Army Captain Theo Lipsky, whom I met in 2013 when he was a cadet attending a week-long series of seminars that Ian and I organized at Rutgers University, has recently posted a moving portrait of Ian as a teacher. In it he observes that the main lessons Ian taught in his classes on the ethics of war were “that meaningful philosophical inquiry separated an officer from a mere killer, that such inquiry was within the ability of every cadet, and that because cadets were able, they had to ask by what right and with what consequence might they one day kill.” I commend this short essay to anyone who would like to know more about what Ian was like as a person.

I had become friends with Ian and had many discussions with him about the ethics of war before I learned in detail about his background. I had known that he had been an Army Ranger and a member of Special Forces but it was quite a while before I learned about his essential role in restraining the Bush administration’s practice of torture. Ian was modest; he never talked about his action in combat or about his morally courageous breaking of ranks, as a last resort, to compel his superior officers and their superiors in the Bush administration to respect the law governing the treatment of civilians and prisoners of war.

In going outside the military and appealing directly to Senator McCain, Ian was acting loyally in the service of his country and the Army, both of which he loved, and both of which were egregiously violating the principles and undermining the values for which they claimed to be fighting. But many in the Army and the government were angry and resentful at being constrained, and in some cases implicitly condemned, by the action of a mere captain. So Ian paid a price—ultimately a very high price indeed—for his noble action in holding the country to the values it professes.

I was witness to one small instance of the persecution to which he was subsequently subjected. He and I attended the dinner at a CERL conference on “Weighing Lives in War.” The traditional after-dinner speech was given on this occasion by a retired U.S. Army general who had been a commander at Guantánamo. During the question-and-answer period following the talk, Ian, who was in full dress uniform, politely asked a question about some point the speaker had raised in the talk. I cannot remember the substance of the question, but I do recall that it was in no way provocative or impertinent. Had it been asked by anyone else, the speaker would simply have answered it to the best of his ability and passed on to the next question. Instead, he ignored the question and turned savagely on Ian, speaking with a ferocity I had never seen at any academic event and hope never to see again. The only words I can recall with certainty are ones the retired general spat at Ian: “Have you ever killed a civilian, Major?” (the last word spoken with vicious contempt), and Ian’s calmly spoken reply, “Never intentionally, sir.”

I looked for Ian when we all got up from the dinner tables but he had left the room. I learned later as I drove the two of us and a couple of others back to our hotel that he had gone outside for a brief walk in the dark to compose himself. He expressed no bitterness but simply commented that he hoped I could see why he had decided to retire from the military.

Years later, when Ian had come to Oxford to give a talk at All Souls College and was staying at my house, he told me about certain extreme forms of persecution to which he was being subjected. His claims struck me as improbable. Yet it was impossible to doubt his honesty. And in other respects, he seemed entirely normal. I now know that the claims he made were an early manifestation of the mental health problems that incapacitated him in the end. I also now find it impossible to doubt that the ways in which he was treated by powerful figures who deeply resented his political intervention in the Iraq War were a significant part of the cause of those problems. I blame the retired general and others who took their revenge in whatever ways they could.

During the last few years of his life, Ian’s academic work had begun to shift from just war theory to the study of ways in which the resilience of liberal, democratic political and legal institutions might be reinforced. This work, which was partly philosophy, partly history, and partly political analysis, was motivated by his alarm at the erosion of democratic norms and the manipulation of credulous populations by aspiring autocrats in contemporary democratic societies, particularly the United States. I thought at the time, and still think, that because of his background and reputation among those who are committed to both truth and morality, his work had the potential to be unusually influential in combatting the drive towards ultra-nationalist, anti-democratic politics in Western societies. Because of his unique combination of moral, martial, academic, and personal virtues, Ian was one of the very few most admirable and impressive people I have ever known. We desperately need him now.

About the author

Jeff McMahan

Jeff McMahan is Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford.

CERL is grateful to Jesse Hamilton, Ph.D. student in Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, for his work as guest editor.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent CERL’s official views.

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