Donald Trump’s election victory was fueled in part by a boost from active military personnel and veterans, who supported him by a two-to-one margin over his opponent.
Those who have borne the heaviest burdens in our recent wars placed their trust in the Republican candidate. President TrumpDonald TrumpMark Walker to stay in North Carolina Senate race Judge lays out schedule for Eastman to speed up records processing for Jan. 6 panel Michael Avenatti cross-examines Stormy Daniels in his own fraud trial MORE has gotten off to a good start in repaying that trust through such moves as appointing Gen. James Mattis, a proven Marine veteran and respected military leader, to head the Pentagon.
He could take a further step in that direction by using his presidential clemency powers to pardon U.S. Army Lt. Clint Lorance.
In July 2012, Lorance found himself newly installed as the leader of a combat platoon in Afghanistan. Just three days into his tenure, three Afghan men on a single motorcycle approached his platoon’s position. A rifleman called out the threat and fired, but missed. Based on the rifleman’s threat assessment, Lorance radioed troops stationed in an nearby watch position to open fire. Two of the Afghan men were killed, while the third escaped.
Were they innocent civilians, or enemy combatants? Could they have been suicide bombers? Could they have been conducting surveillance of the position for a later attack? Such uncertainty is common in a combat zone. But Lorance’s story had an uncommon outcome.
Army officials claimed the killed men were civilians, accusing the lieutenant of violating the rules of engagement. Lorance faced a court martial on charges of second-degree murder. He was found guilty in August 2013 and is now serving a 19-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
There are multiple ambiguities in Lorance’s case. His attorney suggests the prosecution withheld evidence showing the killed men were linked to the insurgency, since their fingerprints were found on explosive components. Had that information been admitted at the trial, he says, his client likely would have been exculpated.
Further complicating the story is that members of Lorance’s platoon testified against him. In their opinions, the new lieutenant was reckless, overly aggressive and showed poor judgment. While several of those who testified against Lorance were granted immunity from prosecution in the case, that by no means is to suggest they were misrepresenting how they understood the situation.
It’s this last point that troubles me in Lorance’s case: how everyone involved may have interpreted (or misinterpreted) what happened.
Those who have served in uniform — and I speak both from my own experience leading a platoon in Afghanistan and from talking to other veterans — will tell you that functioning in a combat zone requires rapid decision-making in situations with low or poor information. Making the wrong call can be dangerous for an officer and his men — or deadly.
That difficulty is even more acute in environments like Afghanistan or Iraq, where the enemy wears no uniform and can readily blend in with civilian populations. (If you’ve seen the film “American Sniper,” you’ve glimpsed the intense challenge of making those distinctions under pressure, and the moral quandaries such decisions pose.)
We don’t know what went through Lorance’s mind at the time. He was new to the platoon, having arrived just a few days before. Is it possible his call was a mistake rooted in inexperience, or poor training, or trying too hard to appear “tough” in front of the men under his command?
Or was his call based upon fear? There’s no shame in that. Most of us would find that being thrown into an unfamiliar leadership situation, particularly in a high-stakes combat environment in which the enemy is often invisible, means learning to overcome fear, anxiety and stress.
We do know Lorance’s command was in a hot zone where the Taliban insurgency was active. He was well aware the platoon had already sustained casualties — in fact, the man he replaced had been seriously wounded by an improvised explosive device. If he was overly aggressive, it may have been a natural, though miscalibrated, response to a dangerous environment.
I have no way of knowing for certain if Lorance made the right call. That uncertainty squares with my own experience in Afghanistan.
As a young officer, I was learning every day on the job. Luckily, I had a team of experienced non-commissioned officers under my command from whom I could learn, helping me develop into a more effective and judicious combat leader. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which I might have made a wrong call in a situation similar to the one that Clint Lorance faced.
Another recent development further underscores the need for leniency in Lorance’s case. In January, outgoing President Obama commuted the sentence of U.S. Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning, who had released classified military documents to WikiLeaks. Manning’s actions endangered U.S. military personnel, as well as Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who had worked with us.
If a soldier who’s committed a crime as consequential as Manning’s can walk free — and remember, there is no question at all about Manning’s guilt — then surely an officer who erred in combat, though tragically, is owed the benefit of a doubt. There’s enough murkiness surrounding Lorance’s case to suggest that benefit of a doubt is deserved.
Lorance may or may not be a hero in your eyes — but I do not believe he’s a murderer or war criminal. My strong sense is that he was a young officer who very well might have made a wrong call, and who’s now paid for that mistake with several years of his life in prison. Two decades in prison is an unjust penalty for a mistake.
A standard of mercy and leniency should prevail. President Trump has the power to set this right by issuing a full pardon for Lt. Clint Lorance. It would be a positive step in cementing trust with service personnel and veterans — and it’s the right thing to do.
Parnell is a retired U.S. Army infantry captain who served in Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division. He is the author of the national bestseller "Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan."
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