I really tried to keep this one, perhaps because when I interviewed him in 1996, I didn’t realize I was beginning my life’s work. He’s also someone I’ve seen repeatedly over the years since, not just when I interviewed him again in San Diego but at Occupy in 2011, and the Manning trial in 2013.But his story got cut eventually, and like the others his voice no thrums between the book’s pages.
Rockwood wasn’t objecting to any war; instead, his dissent happened during one of Bill Clinton’s “humanitarian” interventions, when only peaceniks like me and Todd Ensign wanted to help him. Often, soldiers turning to the peace movement have been stalwart militarists. Captain Lawrence Rockwood was no exception.
Rockwood still chuckles a little when he thinks about the day in 1994 that he called attorney Tod Ensign: “If there was a believer in what U. S. military as a force for good, it was me. And I still do.”[i] Tod Ensign had helped soldier-dissenters since the Vietnam War; now, he kept busy helping those caught in the Clinton administration’s new armed interventions, the ones touted as wars for international human rights. In September 1994, Rockwood had just thrown away a promising career in military intelligence by charging his command with flagrant disregard for the laws of war.
A Catholic who’d once tried to join the Capuchin monastic order, Rockwood had transferred to military intelligence after nearly 11 years as an enlisted medic; at first, he mostly read communiques and analyzed data for the 10th Mountain Division. Rockwood had been exhilarated when Bill Clinton declared Operation Uphold Democracy, a response to the well-publicized brutality taking place in Haiti. Rockwood’s division was deployed to help restore power to deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, and to guard against human rights abuses by the FRAPH (the Haitian militia that had overthrown Aristide).
As his unit was preparing to depart, Rockwood found that the intelligence being supplied to commanders was inadequate and steeped in stereotypes. He was told to classify intelligence into five categories or PIRs (Priority Information Requests), one of which was “Haitian-on-Haitian violence,” a categorization heavy with racist implications, one that omitted the structural and geopolitical issues that fueled this violence. “The phrase, reminiscent of the expression ‘black on black violence’ concocted to describe South African violence in the mid-1980s,” wrote one journalist covering Haiti for InterPress Service, “seeks to equate the two ‘sides’ of the Haitian struggle and thereby conceal both the reality of Haiti and the responsibility of US proxies.”[ii] Similar tropes were raised during the Philippine War and World War I. The nation’s original sin was alive and well.
Then, 10th Mountain commander General David Meade changed the mission, citing a lack of political support for Aristide and determined to prevent “his” Marines from suffering what those in Somalia (whose bodies militants had paraded in front of CNN) had the previous year. Meade told the 10,000 arriving troops that their number one priority was “force protection.” When Rockwood’s informers described the brutal murders of Aristide supporters in the poorest section of Port-au-Prince, Rockwood could do nothing. “We had all these soldiers and Marines,” he told me, his voice breaking. “It was as if we could hear them crying for help, but our orders were to stay inside and protect each other.”
In addition to a master’s degree in international relations from Catholic University and years of thinking of himself in his military role as a humanitarian or healer of sorts, Rockwood carried with him the memory of a childhood visit to Dachau, during which his father told him that the United States had been morally bound to intervene. “He told me that the reason that these things are created is because of blind obedience and cynicism,” Rockwood recalled later. “That’s exactly what I was seeing, blind obedience and cynicism.”[iii]
When Rockwood told his superiors that he’d learned that some five to twenty people a day were being killed in Haiti’s notorious National Prison, he was told that an investigation would happen “in due time.” After hearing that it might take a week, “during which hundreds might die,” Rockwood registered a letter of protest with the brigade commander. On the night of September 20, 1994, he jumped the fence of his compound to start an investigation himself.
I said, “Well, I’m here to get a list of names, a list of the prisoners. I’m going to go through the prisoners and I’m going to call out, and I want them to answer.” [The major assigned as prison warden] said, “I can’t do that until the morning.”… I was there about three-and-a-half hours. And an American officer from the embassy, Major Chuck Lane, shows up. And he was …. one of the people who started FRAPH [the paramilitary Revolutionary Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti]. … And he was saying, “You know, the world’s full of hellholes. And why does this one bother you?” I said, “This hellhole is the responsibility of the United States Army. That’s why this one bothers me. The other ones aren’t.”
Rockwood was eventually court-martialed for insubordination and conduct unbecoming an officer. His defense was led by Ramsey Clark, U.S. Attorney General under President Jimmy Carter. Clark successfully beat back a last-minute effort to drop one of the charges, “conduct unbecoming an officer,” which would have prevented Rockwood from giving the reasons for his actions. Rockwood’s defense counter-charged that the Marines, who had operational control of the Haiti mission, had been far too reluctant to take risks on behalf of the Haitians they were there to protect. Clark found perhaps the most compelling witness possible on Rockwood’s behalf: Hugh Thompson, the pilot who had discovered and helped stem the My Lai massacre in Vietnam decades earlier.
When he read in the newspapers of Rockwood’s arrest, Thompson had telephoned immediately and offered to come to Fort Drum to testify. In court, Thompson recounted his actions in March 1968 and added, “I think you have a moral obligation to be a good officer and you need to follow it up and take the consequences. We don’t need a lot of ‘yes men’ in the military. We need somebody who will get the job done and take responsibility.” He said of Rockwood, “I don’t see where what he did warrants conduct unbecoming an officer. … It sounds like he was forced into a no-win situation.”[iv]
After being found guilty, Rockwood was dismissed from the service; although a progressive who passionately believed in the potential of the military to act for good in the world, he was no longer welcome to enact that belief in uniform.[v] Instead, he joined others of the era’s dissenting soldiers, who’d believed similarly in the military’s potential for good, until that belief was sorely tested by their government.
[i] Interview, August 1999, San Francisco. We also spoke in June of 2006 at Rockwood’s home in San Diego; unless indicated otherwise, quotes in this chapter are from the latter conversation.
[ii] Dan Coughlin, “The case of Lawrence P. Rockwood.” Haiti Progres, vol. 12, no. 51, 20 March 1995,
[iii] Rita Beamish, “A Court Martial Over What the Real Mission Was in Haiti.” Associated Press, May 6 1995.
[iv] Trial transcript provided by Rockwood.
[v] When he accepted an invitation in 2000 to teach human rights at the School of the Americas, many allies in Veterans for Peace, including Thompson, were aghast. “But I’m not a pacifist,” Rockwood insisted.