On May 6, President Trump gave a full pardon to a former Army officer, Michael Behenna, who had been convicted of the 2008 murder of a naked and unarmed Iraqi man. Trump has reportedly asked the Justice Department for pardon files on a number of other individuals involved in war crimes.
One of those individuals is Navy Seal Edward Gallagher, whose fellow Seals reported him for killing a teenage prisoner and shooting two civilians. Trump has praised Gallagher’s service and ordered that he given more favorable conditions of confinement while awaiting trial. A lawyer for the Trump Organization is on the defense team, which should raise eyebrows.
Nicholas Slatten, who was recently convicted in federal court for a murder that led to the unprovoked slaughter of 16 other Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, is also being considered for clemency. Slatten was a member of the shoot-’em-up Blackwater private security company owned by Erik Prince, the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
It sickens me that we still have a few members of the military who dishonor our nation and our military by committing crimes of war. As a result of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, the U.S. military put great emphasis on morality training to prevent future atrocities. The great majority of America’s servicemen conduct themselves with honor and integrity. The few criminals that still slip through the cracks should be dealt with harshly and not be given executive clemency.
It is notable that colleagues of both Gallagher and Slatten stepped forward to report their misconduct, even though they were warned against it. That was the system of honor working as it should to hold the bad actors accountable. If the bad eggs are let off the hook, it will discourage others who witness atrocities from stepping forward.
Some news outlets and members of Congress have called for pardons for these and others by claiming military courts are unfair. That is pure baloney. Although I served in an artillery unit in Vietnam, I defended a dozen special courts martial and found the system to be fair to those I represented. A higher-stakes general court martial has even greater protections for defendants.
Criminal conduct on the battlefield is destructive of discipline and order. It besmirches the honorable reputation of the U.S. military. It lowers our standing among nations. It put our service personnel at greater risk by inviting retaliatory action by hostile forces—if we can kill unarmed prisoners, they will also.
Vietnam was this county’s first televised war. Broadcasts of atrocities like the My Lai Massacre severely harmed our mission there. In our present electronically-connected world, news of misconduct by U.S. troops can spread around the world in a matter of minutes.
In a guerilla war, like Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq, you can’t prevail without winning the hearts and minds of the general population. They have to feel they are more secure with American and allied forces than with the insurgents. That can’t be done if our forces are committing war crimes.
Enemy recruiting and consequent American casualties were fueled by My Lai, the Blackwater massacre, the wretched conditions at Abu Ghraib Prison, murders of unarmed prisoners, and the like. All of our actions are being played out on the world stage and we need to comport ourselves in a fashion that wins and holds the hearts and minds of that broader population. They need to know that America conducts itself with honor on the battlefield and that it punishes those few who fail to do so.