November 25, 2019

Clemency for Three Military Officers

On November 15, “President Donald Trump… granted clemency to three controversial military figures embroiled in charges of war crimes, arguing the moves will give troops ‘the confidence to fight’ without worrying about potential legal overreach.” Military Times

“Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday fired the Navy’s top official… Esper said he had lost confidence in Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and alleged that Spencer proposed a deal with the White House behind his back to resolve [Eddie Gallagher’s] case.” AP News

Both sides criticize the pardons and argue that they will undermine military discipline:

“War crimes are not difficult to discern… The actions these men were accused of most definitely qualify as war crimes. Killing three guys on a motorcycle when they are far away and carrying nothing more deadly than a cucumber—that’s a war crime. Killing old men and little girls with a sniper rifle is a war crime. Killing a prisoner with a hunting knife is a war crime. Waiting for an unarmed man to walk past you, then shooting him, is a war crime… ‘You have to play the game the way [ISIS is] playing the game,’ Trump told John Dickerson in 2016, while still a candidate. Now, as president, he is implementing that policy, and telling members of a once-proud fighting force that they should be savages and sneaks.”
Graeme Wood, The Atlantic

“The president has the power to do this, but Trump has misused that power to give war criminals a free pass. Interfering in the process before one of these cases went to trial was wrong, and overruling the punishment meted out in the other two was even worse. Trump’s action undermines military discipline. It sends a horrible message that U.S. forces will be allowed to get away with anything. Finally, it insults the hundreds of thousands of other people that have served honorably in the military… by doing this he is showing blatant disrespect for the military’s own practices and system of justice.”
Daniel Larison, The American Conservative

Trump’s “interventions in this case and that of two other service members undercut military leadership and dishonor the men and women who serve their country while upholding — not abandoning — its values… [The SEAL team] has been shaken by a series of scandals in recent years, prompting Navy officials to take a tougher stance on ethical issues. Restoring to service someone who was turned in by members of his unit who wouldn’t tolerate his behavior sends precisely the wrong message. The damage was compounding on Sunday with news that Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer was being forced out. The commander in chief’s corrupting influence is ever widening.”
Editorial Board, Washington Post

“Through these pardons, and his earlier unprecedented interventions as these cases were making their way through the justice system, the president has undermined principles that long have served as a bedrock for our armed forces

“It is often difficult to embrace rules that our adversaries do not respect… [but] what sets us apart from such enemies are our values, our fundamental beliefs, our adherence to rule of law. By undercutting a military justice system that enforces those guiding principles, the president has not strengthened our armed forces. By sanctioning illegal behavior, he endangers the safety of our troops, giving our adversaries a green light to similarly mistreat men and women who serve honorably in our military.”
Benjamin Freakley and Clint Williamson, The Hill

“The president may feel like he’s righting a wrong, but he’s damaging the nation’s moral compass… A nation has to know that military action being taken in its name follows morally defensible rules — that soldiers do not, for instance, kill unarmed civilians or prisoners. To excuse men who have so flagrantly violated those rules — to treat them as heroes, even — is to cast the idea of just war to the winds… The president has the undisputed power to pardon. Indeed, he should use it more often in cases where guilt or a fair trial are in genuine doubt. But that power cannot be exercised without a cost, in this case injury to the morality of a nation that once held its own to account.”
Editorial Board, New York Times

“The President is responsible for general policy and big impactful decisions when it comes to fighting wars. But traditionally, we don’t see presidents micromanaging military personnel decisions at this level. It’s bad for morale and can prove disruptive to the chain of command… The SEALs are the best judge of who should or shouldn’t be counted in their ranks. We should leave them to conduct their business in accordance with the rules.”
Jazz Shaw, Hot Air

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“The United States has accrued numerous advantages by being better, more principled, and more trustworthy than its enemies. Among those advantages are allies willing to have American bases on their territory and to participate in the wars we fight. Being a principled and disciplined military that operates with clear ethical norms also serves the crucial purpose of helping veterans to reintegrate into civilian society and make their individual peace with the violence they have committed on America’s behalf… Whatever political value these pardons serve for the president, they are bad for the American military and bad for its relationship with broader civilian society.”
Kori Schake, The Atlantic

“The slaughter of the 1940s, in which civilians bore the brunt of much military force, notably through aerial bombings, led nations to recommit themselves to vigorous enforcement of rules on the conduct of war — rules that drew sharp distinctions between combatants and noncombatants, protecting the latter. The goal was to avoid total war at all costs and to ensure that professional soldiers bore the brunt of war’s horror. Trump apparently rejects the combatant-noncombatant distinction as a pointless quibble. Yet such a stance could have dangerous implications, including for both U.S. soldiers and American civilians

"If the chivalric code breaks down and legal restrictions evaporate, there will be no grounds for objection when U.S. service members and civilians fall victim to unrestrained killing and brutality. In total war, civilians on both sides always lose.”
Jens David Ohlin, Washington Post

From the Right

Representatives Duncan Hunter (R-CA) and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) write, “The blind confidence in the military justice system by some at the Pentagon is grossly misplaced. We have seen firsthand the politicized nature of the military judicial process and have discovered more instances of prosecutorial misconduct than we can mention. Moreover, our broken Uniform Code of Military Justice denies our service members basic rights and weights the scales of justice against the accused

“In the Lorance case, the prosecution claimed Afghans killed during a combat patrol in their country were simply civilians. However, prosecutors failed to disclose or produce fingerprint and DNA evidence proving that at least two of the three ‘victims’ were Taliban bombmakers… In the Gallagher case, prosecutors purposely installed spyware on the defense team’s computers. If that wasn’t enough, the prosecution’s own witness admitted to the crime Gallagher was accused of committing…

“In the Golsteyn case, Army prosecutors pursued charges years after an investigation cleared Golsteyn of wrongdoing. When their case began to fall apart, they changed their theory weeks before the trial was scheduled to begin by enlisting possible members of the Taliban in Afghanistan as their key witnesses… When the circumstances are viewed holistically, [these men] did what our country asked of them. The three deserve our gratitude and thanks. Instead, they find themselves at the mercy of a broken military justice system for simply doing their jobs.”
Duncan Hunter and Louie Gohmert, Fox News

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