War Stories

Trump’s Unpardonable Cynicism

The president disrespects the military again with his plan to pardon accused war criminals.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump greets members of the U.S. military during an unannounced trip to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Dec. 26, 2018.

President Donald Trump’s plan to pardon several servicemen and contractors charged with war crimes provides further proof that the commander in chief knows nothing about the basic workings of the U.S. military.

According to the New York Times, Trump has asked the Justice Department to expedite the pardoning paperwork for these cases so that he can issue the pardons by Memorial Day, presumably to display his love for the armed forces—though, in fact, it would reveal only his contempt and cynicism.

Chris Jenks, a scholar on the law of armed conflict who served as special counsel in the Defense Department’s Office of the General Counsel from 2017 to 2018, said in a phone interview that the pardons would express “utter disdain for the commanders” and for the military justice system that Trump himself, at least formally, heads. “It’s his system,” Jenks said. If he doesn’t like the way it works, “it’s on him to change it.” Or if he thinks these particular defendants were improperly charged, he needs to show how—a hard task, given that pardoning probes usually take months, whereas Trump wants these finished in a week.

The servicemen in question were charged not by some international tribunal or one of the bleeding-heart judges that Trump often rails against, but rather by U.S. military courts operating under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (The contractor was convicted of first-degree murder in a federal court.) And the alleged crimes are not small matters.

In one case, a special operations chief in the Navy SEALs is charged with spraying gunfire at crowds of unarmed civilians in Iraq and with shooting to death an old man and a teenage girl from a sniper’s nest—just for sport.

In the other cases, Blackwater security contractors were found guilty of shooting dozens of unarmed Iraqis during a street protest early on in the war, an event that intensified the ongoing insurgency, which led to thousands more deaths. A major in the Green Berets killed an unarmed Afghan, whom he suspected to be a bomb maker, and buried him in a shallow grave, and a group of Marines was charged with urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters (they videotaped the deed).

Trump will no doubt argue that these men were serving the nation in perilous conditions. This is true but irrelevant. Military laws are written and enforced to maintain discipline and mutual trust among U.S. troops in combat—to enhance their effectiveness and safety. Pardoning disrupters of this order, before they’re tried or after they’re convicted, erodes this discipline.

The pardons would also send three terrible messages. First, it sends a message to the troops that they don’t need to focus on the mission or to control their passions; they won’t get punished for lashing out, regardless of what their commanding officers have told them.

Second, it sends a message to troops witnessing a crime of this sort not to bother reporting it to higher-ups. In the case of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, the Navy SEAL who routinely shot at civilians in Iraq, the subordinates who first reported him were told to look away; it took courage and great risk for them to press ahead. A presidential pardon would demoralize everyone in that unit and discourage principled behavior in all units in the future.

Finally, it sends a message to the people in countries hosting our troops that the U.S. military is a rogue force and that assurances about its ethos and restraint should not be trusted.

All three of these messages endanger our troops in battle—and further sully the reputation of our country overseas.

This is what Trump does not understand. He thinks that war is about nothing but killing and that the same is true of those fighting the wars. After winning the 2016 election, he recruited James Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general, to be secretary of defense, figuring that, because his nickname as a commander was “Mad Dog,” he would be one of “the greatest killers.” Trump was surprised when Mattis told him that torture didn’t work. Mattis’ frequent strictures to his troops—to think before they fire—is typical of U.S. commanders in the past half-century.

By the same token, Trump probably believes the troops will love him if he forgives one from their ranks who, in his way of thinking, was only doing his job but stepped a little out of line. He is wrong, and it’s a demeaning message to send on the day when true honor and bravery are commemorated.