San Francisco—Few had heard of General Antonio Taguba before September 11, 2001.
But in the years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks — when fear and anger turned to a sense of unity against extremism, but which later morphed into blind faith in war waged based on lies — the Filipino American general emerged as a symbol of integrity and courage.
It’s fair to say that 9-11 and the Iraq War cost General Taguba his career. But the tragic events also made him a hero.
The Iraq War was supposedly aimed at an Al Qaeda ally who had weapons of mass destruction. Both assumptions turned out to be false.
And a year after the invasion, one of the most shocking chapters of that military adventure was exposed: the abuse of prisoners by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison. Photos showing the mistreatment of prisoners triggered worldwide outrage.
Suddenly, a Filipino found himself at the center of a major US political and military scandal.
It was Taguba’s job to investigate reports of the abuses at Abu Ghraib. And he performed his duty like a true military professional.
Seymour Hersh, the reporter who was among the first to write about the abuses in the New Yorker, called Taguba “fearless.” And when he testified before the U.S. Congress, media reports highlighted and were even impressed by his Filipino background.
Taguba grew up in Sampaloc, the son of a beterano who fought in the battle for Bataan in World War II. Taguba himself later became a dedicated soldier who spent his career moving up the ranks of the U.S. military hierarchy.
His testimony confirmed his image as a military officer who took seriously such values as integrity, honesty and responsible leadership.
“Forthright, terse, direct, Taguba turned out to be a by-the-book soldier worthy of central casting,” a Washington Post report said.
“The man sent to investigate the warped doings at Abu Ghraib appeared to be the straightest arrow imaginable. He didn’t just nod to Army rules and regulations; he seemed to have memorized every page of every manual.”
That last part was based on Taguba’s penchant for citing specific provisions in military manuals to explain his point.
Asked why Taguba believed in the need to separate military police and intelligence officers, Taguba, according to the Washington Post report, responded, “Army regulation 190-8, which is a multiservice regulation, establishes the policy in executive agency for detention operations.”
But while he may be a stickler for military rules and regulations, Taguba also won praise for his direct, straightforward approach.
As the Washington Post reported, a senator asked Stephen Cambone, a Pentagon civilian official in charge of military intelligence, “In simple and plain words, how do you think this happened?”
The Pentagon official responded, “With the caveat, sir, that I don’t know the facts, it’s, for me, hard to explain.”
Then the senator posed the same question to Taguba, “In simple words — your own soldier’s language — how did this happen?”
Taguba responded: “Failure in leadership, sir, from the brigade commander on down. Lack of discipline, no training whatsoever and no supervision. Supervisory omission was rampant. Those are my comments.”
Taguba was later instructed by his superiors to retire. It was widely viewed as retaliation by those in government for his role in exposing the abuses.
But General Taguba has continued to play an important role in the Filipino American community.
He became a spokesman for the fight for equity rights of Filipino World War 2 veterans. And the retired general even found time to celebrate with his community.
I met him four years ago when we both took part in the Pistahan parade in San Francisco. He was one of the marshals of the parade which at times became disorganized.
“Too many moving parts,” he quipped.
But as we marched down Market Street waving to fellow Filipinos, the one-time kid from Sampaloc was smiling.
The general was having a good time.
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