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We have watched with growing concern over the last several months the manner in which the issue of torture has been raised in the presidential campaign — in debates and on the campaign trail. We recognize that campaigns are often more about scoring points against opponents than responsibly staking out affirmative positions. In too many instances, the debate about interrogation methods and prisoner treatment has lacked an understanding about the impact that torture (or as some have termed it, “enhanced interrogation techniques”) has on the safety of American military personnel and the values they fight to defend.

We hope to change that. We are co-chairmen of a gathering of more than a dozen retired generals and admirals with extensive backgrounds in combat operations, intelligence, law and medicine who met last weekend in Iowa to address these issues directly in private meetings with seven of the candidates. We invited every presidential candidate from both parties to meet privately with us for a candid discussion of these issues. Our group is nonpartisan and will not endorse any candidate. Our goal is to ensure that every presidential candidate has the opportunity to hear firsthand from those of us who have made national security our life’s work the importance of getting it right on prisoner treatment.

We started these discussions in New Hampshire in April with several of the candidates. Now, with the first votes of the 2008 election only weeks away, our objective to reach every candidate on this issue takes on even more urgency. Our group is not a formal one, but we have come together because we believe that national policies governing treatment of detainees in counterterrorism operations have placed American military personnel at increased risk, undermined U.S. intelligence gathering efforts, and stained the reputation of the United States around the world. Most generals and admirals do not get involved in the political fray, even those of us who are retired. But we feel a responsibility at this juncture to do what we can to preserve the values we fought to defend and to uphold the standards of humane treatment on which those serving our country today — and those who will serve it in the future — depend.

Five former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have spoken out publicly urging that the U.S. not deviate from the humane treatment provisions of the Geneva Conventions. While some argue that this “new war” has outgrown the “quaint” rules of the Geneva Conventions, as military professionals, we learned that every war is a “new war” in some respects. It is certainly true that the nature of the threat has changed. But nothing in our logic or experience tells us that, by necessity, everything has changed. The basic obligations of an occupying power, a matter of settled international law, have not changed. The standards we apply to ourselves when dealing with captives — like those we expect our enemies to observe in dealing with captives they hold — have not changed. And, unless we are willing to concede defeat, who we are as a nation — our character and the values we espouse — has not changed.

Gen. David Petraeus, responding to a survey that revealed a troubling level of acceptance of abuse against noncombatants by U.S. soldiers in Iraq, underscored this in an open letter to the troops in May. “Our values and the laws governing warfare teach us to respect human dignity, maintain our integrity, and do what is right. Adherence to our values distinguishes us from our enemy,” Petraeus wrote. And while “some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy, they would be wrong.”

We agree. Whoever the next occupant of the Oval Office is, he or she will be the person to whom the men and women of our armed forces will look, not only for their orders but for the guidance and standards that inform those orders. Our troops need clear and consistent standards, and the military provides those to them. But if the commander in chief muddies that message by saying that he or she would be willing to authorize torture in exceptional circumstances, we cannot expect our troops on the battlefield, who face death every day, to eschew it.

Our country cannot hope to lead the world if it forsakes the most fundamental rules and standards it insists other countries uphold. And no candidate can effectively lead this country without a deep understanding of and respect for the values on which it was founded. We owe a duty to those serving our country in uniform to do what we can to secure that leadership.

Marine Gen. Joseph P. Hoar (retired) was commander in chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994. Gen. David M. Maddox (retired) was commander in chief of U.S. Army Europe from 1992 to 1994.

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