A Question of Duty: How an Officer Destroyed His Career by Trying to Liberate Haitian Prisoners

Newsweek, November 22, 1999 | Go to article overview
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A Question of Duty: How an Officer Destroyed His Career by Trying to Liberate Haitian Prisoners


When Capt. Lawrence Rockwood of the 10th Mountain Division arrived in Haiti in September 1994 along with 20,000 other American troops, he thought his mission was to keep atrocities from happening. An idealist, Rockwood liked to quote Gen. Douglas MacArthur: "The protection of the weak and unarmed is the very essence and reason for [a soldier's] being." Very noble and romantic, but Rockwood's commander, Gen. David Meade, had a different notion of this particular mission. Meade was in charge of the "intervasion" force that had been allowed into Haiti to oversee the peaceful transfer of power from Haitian strongman Raoul Cedras to democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Meade's first priority was protecting his own troops. The Army commander was following orders: "force protection"--avoiding casualties--has become the mantra of the Pentagon brass uncomfortable with the Army's new peacekeeping role. But it meant that U.S. soldiers--mocked as "Ninja Turtles" in their heavy body armor--had to stand aside on the first day and helplessly watch as Haitian thugs beat to death a supporter of Aristide's.

For Rockwood, the Army's passivity was intolerable. The son, grandson and great-grandson of military men, he once studied to be a Roman Catholic priest. His duty to obey his commander conflicted with his duty to his conscience. So he decided to take matters into his own hands: to personally liberate the most notorious of Haitian prisons, the National Penitentiary. Rockwood's defiance of orders cost him his career, and his story, taken from interviews and his court-martial record, dramatically illustrates the dilemma of a modern peacekeeping Army.

As a counterintelligence officer, Rockwood was supposed to develop informants. But in his first week in Haiti, his informants began to mysteriously disappear. Reading intelligence reports--a beheaded body found in a swamp, a mutilated torture victim spirited out of a local jail at night--Rockwood could guess at their fates. Determined to try to save his informants, Rockwood lobbied his superiors for permission to inspect the Haitian jails, particularly the National Penitentiary, where 85 percent of the inmates were political prisoners. Repeatedly rebuffed, he grew anxious, then angry. He thought his commanders were guilty of "moral cowardice." As a little boy, Rockwood had been taken to visit a Nazi concentration camp by his father, an Army Air Force officer in World War II. If he failed to act, Rockwood feared, he would not be able to face his own children.

On the evening of Sept. 30, Rockwood prayed by his cot. He wrote a note to his superiors: "I am doing something that is clearly legal to stop something that is plainly illegal. Action required: All means necessary to implement the intent of the United Nations and U.S. president intent on human rights." His emotions overcame his soldierly discipline. Pinning an American-flag shoulder patch on the note, he wrote, "Take this flag. It is soiled with unnecessary blood. You cowards can court-martial my dead body." Rockwood put on his battle-dress uniform, strapped on a flak jacket and grabbed a full ammo pouch and his rifle.

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