Pardoning war crimes dishonors the military
On the heels of Veterans Day, considerable new speculation has emerged over whether President Trump will grant pardons to at least three U.S. soldiers accused of war crimes. These include Special Forces Major Mathew Golsteyn, an Army officer who faces trial in early 2020 for killing a detainee in Afghanistan; Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, found guilty in July 2019 for posing with the dead body of a teenager he allegedly killed; and Army Lieutenant Clint Lorance, sentenced for murder in 2013.
In considering the pardons, Trump seems to be listening to a small number of conservatives declaring that the pardons would be a defense of American service members. As Trump tweeted last month, “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!”
We are both involved in ongoing research on attitudes toward civilian targeting in war. One of us has served in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know that pardons aren’t only ethically dubious; they hurt the U.S. military’s ability to do its job. Here’s why.
First, pardons make it harder for commanders to foster compliance with military codes of discipline and rules of engagement. The U.S. military makes law and ethics a key component of its training for officers and enlisted soldiers alike. Firm rules and rigorous enforcement provide soldiers clear guidance, even when operating in murky ethical environments. When combatants receive mixed messages about the importance of these rules, however – not least from the commander-in-chief – they become less inclined to follow them.
Second, by lowering the bar for what constitutes acceptable behavior in war, Americans are less likely to trust the commander-in-chief and the U.S. military overall to carry out tasks with integrity. Due to its large global footprint and operations abroad – by one estimate at least 8,000 civilians were killed in the recent U.S.-led campaign against ISIS alone – the U.S. military already faces significant criticism. When no one is held responsible for the unjustified deaths of civilians and detainees, this erodes support for legitimate uses of U.S. military force.
Third, pardons heighten the vulnerability of all Americans in the hands of adversaries to physical and psychological abuse. By sweeping war crimes under the rug, American prisoners of war – as well as journalists, peacekeepers, aid workers, missionaries and others at risk of capture who work and reside in conflict zones – are more likely to suffer unethical treatment, including torture, from armed groups. When the United States fails to respect laws of war, bad actors may put a target on the backs of Americans.
Finally, pardons undercut America’s ability to project moral authority globally. Since the Vietnam War era, the U.S. military has taken a visible leadership role in promoting laws of war. Failing to punish wrongdoers within its own ranks makes it harder to exert authority abroad. Instead, our allies become more disillusioned with U.S. leadership, and our adversaries more emboldened by the weakening professionalism of American combat forces. This sends the wrong message at a time of waning trust in U.S. power.
Defenders of granting pardons to Golsteyn, Gallagher and Lorance might say that it’s a betrayal to punish U.S. service members who, before erring amid the trauma of battle, risked their lives in service of their country. But the opposite is true. As Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a military veteran, has declared, “I think it is an insult to the 99.9 percent of veterans who…[never lost their values], when the president pardons war criminals.”
The U.S. government doesn’t promote discipline in its ranks, or honor its service members, by absolving of guilt those who violate its core principles. It does so by holding all U.S. combatants to the highest legal and ethical standards — standards they’re proud to represent.
There’s a place for presidential pardons. Yet they should be used sparingly, and not for alleged war criminals charged with flouting military law. The honor, professionalism and integrity of U.S. service members and veterans demand no less.
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. Thomas Gift (@TGiftiv) is a lecturer in the department of political science at University College London and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics United States Centre.
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