Trump’s pardon for three servicemen has widespread ramifications

If some US troops believe they can get away with committing war crimes, then the United States loses the moral high ground in the fight against terrorist groups.
Sunday 24/11/2019
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper (L), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army General Mark Milley (R) and US President Donald Trump during a meeting with senior military leaders at the White House in Washington, last October. (Reuters)
Problematic decisions. US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper (L), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army General Mark Milley (R) and US President Donald Trump during a meeting with senior military leaders at the White House in Washington, last October. (Reuters)

Despite strong opposition from the US Defence Department, which prides itself on its military justice system, US President Donald Trump pardoned three US service members convicted or accused of war crimes.

The three US military personnel are: US Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, who had served six years of a 19-year sentence for ordering soldiers under his command to kill unarmed civilians in Afghanistan; US Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, who was demoted in rank for posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter; and Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, who was awaiting trial, charged with killing a suspected Taliban bomb maker who was in the process of being released by US authorities.

The Lorance case gained considerable attention from veterans and their families. The White House reportedly received a petition signed by 124,000 citizens calling on Trump to pardon Lorance, whose case was also championed by several members of Congress.

In justifying the pardon, Trump tweeted: “We train our boys to be killing machines and then prosecute them when they kill!” The White House released a statement by the president saying: “When our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight.”

Trump, who seems ignorant of the rules of war, was clearly pandering to his nationalist base, especially as impeachment inquiries were heating up in the US Congress and with an eye to the 2020 presidential election. When the chief of the Navy suggested that, despite the pardon, he would take away Gallagher’s Trident Pin, signifying membership in the Navy SEALs, Trump overruled him and said the Navy should “get back to business.”

Although Trump’s pardons were praised by some Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans as well as his political supporters, they received sharp criticism from other veterans and military lawyers. One veteran called the pardons “a disgrace.”

The New York Times reported that “many in the military are not celebrating” the pardons because they see it as running roughshod over the military judicial process. A former deputy judge advocate for the US Air Force noted that the “Golsteyn case is the most troubling because the system was never given the chance to work — a court-martial is the best way to determine the facts.” Other legal experts said Trump had sent the signal that the “gloves are off” and that the United States was not going to constrain its own military.

Gary Solis, a Vietnam War veteran and former military attorney who teaches at several law schools, told Military.com: “I can honestly say I have not talked to a single military officer who would be in favour of pardoning any of these three.”

Not only is the US military establishment upset over Trump’s pardons from a jurisdictional and moral standpoint but also in terms of military discipline. They say there is a direct correlation between enforcing the rules of war and military effectiveness. When the former breaks down, the latter suffers.

Some of Trump’s Democratic opponents raised the issue of the pardons on the presidential campaign trail. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a former US Navy intelligence officer who has been rising in the polls, slammed Trump in this way: “There is nothing pro-military about overruling our military justice system to prevent it from delivering accountability for war crimes,” adding, “the president has again dishonoured our armed services.”

Former US Vice-President Joe Biden said the pardons “betray the rule of law, the values that make our country exceptional and the men and women who wear the uniform.” Biden said Trump was “not fit to command our troops.”

Internationally, the pardons also elicited sharp criticism. Rupert Colville, spokesman for the UN human rights office, stated that the pardons “run against the letter and spirit of international law” and send a “disturbing signal” to military forces worldwide.

The United Nations has had problems in the recent past with the discipline of its peacekeeping troops and is clearly worried that Trump’s actions set a dangerous precedent.

This sentiment was echoed by former Army Lieutenant-General Benjamin Freakley and Clint Williamson, former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. In an opinion article in the Hill newspaper, they noted that Trump, by sanctioning illegal behaviour with his pardons, not only undermines US adherence to the rule of law but gives US adversaries “a green light to similarly mistreat men and women who serve honourably.”

The pardons are problematic for US military deployments in the Middle East and elsewhere. If some US troops believe they can get away with committing war crimes because the president “has their back,” then the United States loses the moral high ground in the fight against terrorist groups.

Unfortunately, Trump is either ignorant of this connection or simply does not care about the ramifications of his decision.

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