The unpardonable pardon of Eddie Gallagher
Unsettling new revelations about Edward Gallagher – the Navy SEAL convicted of posing with the dead body of a teenager he allegedly murdered – have once again thrust President Donald Trump’s war crime interventions into the spotlight. Last week, dramatic new video footage was released showing Gallagher’s fellow platoon members detailing their concerns surrounding his toxic behavior on the battlefield.
“[F]reaking evil” and “perfectly OK with killing anybody that was moving” were just some of the phrases that Gallagher’s own colleagues used to describe him. SEAL members recounted in gripping detail how Gallagher stabbed a wounded and defenseless teenager to death. The comments seemed to put to rest any lingering doubts about Gallagher’s character — or whether the embattled officer had a legitimate claim to clemency.
Yet while the new videos provide alarming insight into Gallagher’s misconduct, whether Trump’s war crime interventions ultimately inflict long-term damage on the U.S. armed forces won’t hinge on the disturbing headlines they provoke. Instead, they’ll depend on whether the military accedes to the problematic standards set by the commander-in-chief or insists upon maintaining its longstanding professionalism in the face of Trump’s impunity.
That’s far from a guarantee. Several U.S. military veterans, including Fox News personality Pete Hegseth, originally lobbied Trump to intervene in the war crime cases. A May 2019 poll from the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that roughly 40 percent of U.S. military service members and veterans supported Trump pardoning war criminals — numbers that likely hold today. For some, Gallagher remains a war hero.
Trump promotes this mindset by glorifying Gallagher and defending other accused and convicted war criminals. Consider that the president fired U.S. secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer when he challenged the effort to restore Gallagher’s rank. He recently invited Gallagher to his Mar-a-Lago estate for a photo op. And he’s used two Army officers he pardoned – Special Forces Maj. Mathew Golsteyn and 1st Lt. Clint Lorance – to fundraise for his 2020 reelection bid.
Contrast that with the deafening silence Trump has displayed toward the SEALs who reported Gallagher’s alleged crimes. Their testimonies are noteworthy not just because they chronicled the horrifying actions of Gallagher, but because they did so at great professional risk. By breaking the normal “code of silence,” several of Gallagher’s platoon members put the integrity of the armed forces above their own self-interest.
Yet not everyone in the Gallagher case seems to have acted transparently, suggesting that upholding U.S. military norms isn’t automatic. Gallagher was acquitted of murder in large part because a fellow SEAL changed his story and admitted to the crime — but only after being granted immunity. Even Gallagher’s supervising officer, platoon leader Lt. Jacob Portier, allegedly shielded him by refusing to report Gallagher’s misdeeds and by interfering with the Navy’s criminal investigation.
Regrettably, Trump’s words and actions since granting clemency for Gallagher have only made promoting a culture of integrity in the U.S. military – a challenge requiring ceaseless effort and vigilance – more difficult. By celebrating Gallagher and vilifying his examiners, Trump will likely cause some U.S. service members to second-guess the importance of abiding by U.S. military laws and international conventions on the battlefield.
Simultaneously, Trump’s indifference, and even hostility, toward military law in the Gallagher case makes it less likely that, in the future, service members will come forward when they witness illicit acts in war. This matters because a defining aspect of the subculture of U.S. special operations forces is its limited oversight, at least compared with regular combat forces. Maintaining respect for U.S. military law within this tight-knit setting demands that operators regulate themselves.
It’s true that elite units such as the Navy SEALS face a challenge: They need to preserve trust and member bonds while also enforcing norms against the unauthorized use of force. Yet while such dynamics may seem to be in tension, they ultimately shouldn’t be. Trust predicated on looking the other way in the face of wrongdoing conflicts with U.S. military law and norms, as well as the core values of the special operations community.
Most service members and veterans know this. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, has said that Trump’s attitude toward pardons for war criminals “just shows how little this president understands about what it really means to serve the country.” Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a noted Trump ally who served in the U.S. Air Force, has observed that such acts can create a “chilling effect” on efforts to instill discipline within military ranks.
U.S. armed services personnel and veterans need to ensure that Trump’s culture of impunity within the military isn’t tolerated. Although respect for U.S. military law and values has evolved over decades, it’s susceptible to erosion when bad actions go unchecked. As the Gallagher case makes clear, those concerned with protecting the honor and integrity of the U.S. military must work to ensure that such principles endure in the Trump era.
Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is a lecturer in the department of political science at University College London. Andrew M. Bell (@AndrewBellUS) is an assistant professor in the department of international studies at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University Bloomington and served with the U.S. Air Force in Iraq and Afghanistan.