Remembering 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

Remembering Ian Fishback

I first met Ian in 2012, when he was a masters student in philosophy at the University of Michigan. After a paper I gave at a Classics and Philosophy conference on lessons from ancient wars, Peter Railton, a colleague in the Philosophy Department, pulled me over and said: “Do you know Ian Fishback? If you don’t, you should.” He was absolutely right. That was the beginning of a decade of mentorship, friendship, and collaboration on conferences and panels at both Georgetown and West Point. It was also the beginning of private, behind the scenes concern and counseling.

My philosophical work on the moral injuries of war struck a deep chord with Ian. We both knew it wasn’t just a theoretical interest.

Ian knew and lived the cost of moral courage; he knew its loneliness, and he knew the unspeakable anguish of fighting to speak truth against command structures and bureaucracies that paper over war’s injustice for glory or political gain.

Aristotle tells us courage is only real courage if the sacrifice is for what is truly good and fine. Ian knew that profoundly. He may have been a Ranger and paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and after that, a “Green Beret” in the Special Forces, but moral combat was his close-in combat. And it led, as the world knows, to his most courageous and simply spell-binding letter, sent to Senators John McCain and John Warner. Ian’s letter documented the systematic torture of prisoners by fellow members of his battalion. He sent this letter after 17 months of his complaints being ignored by superiors in his chain of command. Ian was only 26 when he sent that letter to John McCain, and 24 when he protested unlawful and immoral conduct up the chain of command.

I knew another Army whistleblower who also changed the course of how a war was fought—Hugh Thompson, the young Army helicopter pilot who stopped the My Lai massacre in 1968. I interviewed Hugh several times and brought him to speak to midshipmen at the Naval Academy and Georgetown 30 years after My Lai. Hugh said he simply had to do what he did. But he never thought for a second it would put him at such odds with the Pentagon and rank and file in the Army. But it did, and it left him a hunted and haunted man much of his life. The same could be said for Ian. Senior leadership and unit members shunned and betrayed each for daring to expose and stop heinous crimes against humanity. In Ian’s case, the betrayal dug deep.

Ian died tragically in an adult care facility as he waited for months for access into a Veterans Affairs (VA) inpatient facility in Michigan. He was only 42. The psychological toll of military moral injury and betrayal, layered onto whatever else made Ian the brilliant and morally courageous person he was, killed him.

Ian exposed to the world the inhumanity of America’s treatment of the enemy in the Bush era Global War on Terror. Ian’s death exposed the inhumanity of America’s treatment of its service members by both the VA and the Army.

The VA and its contractors failed Ian. From early September until Ian’s death in late November, I worked alongside Noemi Ford, a family friend of Ian’s, as well as Brigadier General (Ret) Stephen Xenakis, a retired Army general and psychiatrist, to get Ian swift access into in-patient mental healthcare and out of a state veterans’ home, which was understaffed and ill equipped to treat mental health. I had consulted with Steve over the years about Ian, whom he knew through their shared work in anti-torture advocacy. Steve and I both had pull and connections with the leadership of the VA in Washington. But we still could not budge the system, until it was too late.

The Army also failed Ian. And it failed Ian egregiously. Leadership systematically ignored what Ian witnessed and exposed torture carried out not by military police trained mostly outside the Army, as General Taguba’s Report had documented around the same time Ian wrote his letter to McCain, but by his own elite Army unit members. Ian told me often that he worried deeply about the moral injuries they would suffer by being torturers—the guilt, shame, breaches of trust, and sense of core values violated.

What Ian came to know was the moral injury he suffered. He was singled out for rough treatment during his Special Forces training. His views were distrusted as distorted, or at least, too nonconforming. Ian was the transgressor.   

At his best and mentally fittest, Ian wasn’t a moral grandstander. But he was a moral idealist. He was unswervingly committed to equity and justice. And he was intense, willing to go wherever morality took him, fiercely and brilliantly. But moral rigidity doesn’t always make for resilience.  And it didn’t in Ian’s case. Ian’s sister recently joked with me that West Point “loosened up” Ian. Moral rectitude was in his bones.

The ancient Stoics, at their strictest, hold that moral goodness is an unalloyed good. It can’t hurt you in the way that money, glory, or power can. It is a fortress, an inner sanctuary of freedom.

Yet moral goodness did hurt Ian. Speaking truth to power isolated him and made him an outsider in the elite “clubs” of the Army. Ian told an audience at Georgetown that he often felt more comfortable talking to the Sunnis and Shia with whom he was negotiating in counterinsurgency operations than with his own unit members. He brought attention to units that prefer to stay below the radar. He betrayed them, on their view, and so they betrayed him back. And as sometimes happens, over time, he flipped the perspective, and their mistrust became his own mistrust of the world and mistrust of many of those around him. Ian’s world became narrow.

Part of the horrific tragedy of Ian’s death is that the VA is the leader in protocols for treating military moral injury—the anguish of moral transgressions, committed, suffered, or witnessed in going to war and killing in war. But the VA is a behemoth organization and its bureaucracy can kill.

Like many service members, Ian was often in denial about his mental suffering. When he had “fight” in him, he often resisted treatment or full compliance. If you asked him how he was doing, he would cock his head a bit to the side and with that Ian-twinkle in his eye, slyly say, “I’m living the dream.” I think he was, when he was doing philosophy. But he also was living the nightmare. We, as a nation, failed him grievously in not giving him the resources to fight his nightmare when he needed them the most and wanted them the most.

Countless veterans are living the nightmare. We owe them what we failed to give Ian. This is the most critical way to honor Ian’s memory, his brilliance, and his remarkable moral courage. I miss Ian terribly. May his memory be a blessing to all.

About the author

Nancy Sherman

Nancy Sherman is a distinguished University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. She is the author, most recently, of “Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience.” She served as the Inaugural Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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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