The Ian Fishback we knew and the nation failed

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

The Ian Fishback we knew and the nation failed

By Brigadier General (Ret) Stephen N. Xenakis, M.D. with observations by Professor Nancy Sherman

Ian Fishback came to my attention when his testimony to Senator John McCain on his observations of abuse and inhumane treatment in Iraq hit the news. I belonged to a group of generals and admirals convened by Human Rights First to speak out against torture and reinforce the commitment of the military to ethical conduct and the rule of law. Major Fishback’s disclosure laid out the evidence that was needed to push back against violations that had shocked us. I recall meeting Ian several years later at a symposium convened by Professor Nancy Sherman to discuss her recently published book on military ethics. He impressed us as a promising and brilliant scholar. But I had a gnawing worry that his career would not go well—both because of what I saw in him and knew about the Army. Nancy contacted me periodically to share updates about his career and the challenges he was encountering. She deserves immeasurable credit for her compassion and commitment to helping him over all these years. We need more educators like her that “walk the walk” and not just “talk the talk.”

The tragic fact is that the Army, and later the Veterans Affairs, failed Major Fishback. Our country is privileged to have the best and most professional military in the history of the world. But even as great as the Army is, it is an institution of good men and women that have their flaws and weaknesses. The ‘big Army’—as we think about it—cracks when tested at times. Ian tested the Army as the kind of officer that forced the institution and bureaucracy to make tough choices, perhaps more than could be expected. The institution of the Army and the men and women who serve in it are committed to the highest ethical and moral standards. But no matter what they say and the evidence we see of their commitment, the policies and conduct of the leadership and individuals get politicized. Over time, Major Fishback challenged the Army to live up to its principles, and he was increasingly marginalized. The Army he loved did not treat him the way he had been taught as a cadet and imagined it would.

We see gaping lapses in affirming standards with the stories of Hugh Thompson and Major General Antonio Taguba. Officers discern early in their careers when they can stand up and speak out on principles. As a highly respected general, Tony Taguba produced a thorough investigation of the reports of Abu Ghraib that likely ended his career. Flag officers, generals, and admirals learn—as I was told as a new general—that you can “fall on your sword,” as Ajax did in the Homeric legend, but only once because you die. Speaking truth to power can end your career. One senior general educated me on Army politics, namely generals have no friends: “[T]heir only friends may be their dog—it’s best to have two dogs, because one may bite you.” Whatever the rank, even the most committed officer to ethical and moral conduct can get subverted when faced with falling on the proverbial sword.

As Nancy has observed: “[I]t wasn’t that [Ian] was contentious, but he was naïve.” He was a scholar whose superb knowledge about moral philosophy did not help him grasp human nature. Ian became a popular and highly respected teacher at West Point. His doctoral studies at the University of Michigan were inspired and dazzling. But as smart as Ian was, he was showing the signs of mentally and psychically unraveling. Ian was not ‘easy’ and helping him was challenging. He could not get the help he needed despite the immense efforts of his friends, colleagues, and mentors.

Nancy is astute in writing that Ian shared the denial about his mental suffering like many other soldiers and veterans that resist treatment and fail in compliance. That says much about him, but more about the shortfalls and deficiencies of the mental health profession. Unlike other clinicians in medicine and surgery, mental health practitioners have a bad habit of blaming the patient if treatment doesn’t go well and not drilling down on the facts about the person. The facts came out that Ian’s inner life had become a nightmare—haunted by moral injury, trauma, troubling relationships, and disillusionment. He needed top-tier therapy, and we could not arrange for it despite heroic efforts. We couldn’t find experienced therapists that grasped the array of worries and anxieties that increasingly occupied his consciousness. And at the end, we could not penetrate the VA bureaucracy to land him in a safe setting and get him comprehensive treatment. 

I echo Professor Sherman’s sentiments that we failed Ian as a nation and as professionals, as we continue to fail so many others like him. May his passing be a lesson to all of us.

About the author

Stephen N. Xenakis, M.D.

Brigadier General (Ret.), U.S. Army, is a psychiatrist and an anti-torture advisor for Physicians for Human Rights. He is a member of CERL’s Executive Board. Twitter: @SteveXen

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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