Trump's pardons open Pandora's box

Trump's pardons open Pandora's box
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With the stroke of a pen, a tweet and against the advice of his most senior military leaders, President TrumpDonald John TrumpVenezuela judge orders prison time for 6 American oil executives Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation MORE has announced to the world that the United States Armed Forces would no longer hold its members accountable for the crimes they commit on the battlefield. His pardon of three accused or convicted U.S. war criminals continues a trend that began in May with his pardon of 1st Lt. Michael Behenna. The risk of the president’s penchant for pardoning war criminals is that the world’s most disciplined and professional fighting force may soon be widely seen as an armed mob.

These are strong words. Some may believe they overstate the case and disregard the overwhelming majority of men and women in uniform who continue to serve our nation honorably. Regrettably, in the wake of the wave of this president’s war crimes clemency actions, strong words are necessary to reverse our nation’s steady march toward the total dismantling of the laws of war. The question is whether this president will listen. 

Mr. President, if you are listening, we need to tell you what’s inside the Pandora’s box you’re opening. We need to warn you about the risks you are exposing all our service members to in the name of shielding some of them from accountability under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.


By pardoning accused and convicted war criminals, the president is sending a message that this nation will allow unconscionable crimes of war to go unpunished. His tweet rejecting the SEAL commander’s efforts to expel one of these criminals from his community was an additional slap in the face of a military trying to uphold its standards. The resulting perception that war criminals can continue to wear our nation’s uniform, including the respected SEAL Trident, threatens to undermine military discipline, recruitment, retention and morale. It corrodes the very values that those who wear the uniform commit to uphold, and sacrifices the “good order and discipline” of our entire armed forces, for the sake of “showing mercy” to war criminals who showed no mercy to civilians or to enemy fighters no longer able to fight.

The pardons also have significant potential international implications. Indiscriminate violence has never been part of the American way of war. The idea that legal and moral constraints exist in warfare predates the United States. Those constraints exist today in the form of international laws of war like the Geneva Conventions, which not only prescribe battlefield behavior but demand accountability for those who misbehave.

Since the Nuremberg Charter, which established the International Military Tribunal following World War II, war crimes are crimes of “universal jurisdiction.” This means that any nation that captures a war criminal may prosecute him or her. We have long argued that because we maintain our own robust system of accountability — the UCMJ — we need not subject our forces to foreign prosecution. We can take care of our own war criminals ourselves. After these pardons, can we still say that?

Beyond the domestic and international legal implications of this decision, a concept called “reciprocity” threatens the safety of our troops in future military operations abroad. We consistently argue that our enemies should behave the way we do. We protect prisoners of war; so should they. We protect non-combatants; so should they. These are the principles that provide hope that our enemies will follow the Geneva Conventions and that American POWs and non-combatants will be safe. Are we now saying our enemies don’t have to protect them?

Finally, at the strategic level, war crimes are strategic defeats. Remember Abu Ghraib, where U.S. military personnel abused prisoners in their custody? Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has stressed that modern warfare requires “courageous restraint” and imposes responsibility on soldiers to know when and where to act, said that the “pictures [from] Abu Ghraib represented a setback for America’s efforts in Iraq. Simultaneously undermining US domestic confidence in the way in which America was operating, and creating or reinforcing negative perceptions worldwide of American values, it fueled violence.”


Mr. President, it is highly unlikely that we will ever fight a war alone. The willingness of other nations to join us in a future fight depends on the confidence they have in the professionalism and discipline of our forces. Unfortunately, given these recent pardons, we are concerned that the lines separating lawful and unlawful battlefield conduct have now blurred. That would be the most dangerous consequence of all.

For the sake of our nation, we sincerely hope such pardons end here and that our civilian and military leaders will work hard to reverse the damage they have inflicted. 

Ambassador Dennis C. Jett (retired), Maj. Gen. Steven J. Lepper USAF (retired), and Vice Adm. Kevin P. Green USN (retired) are members of the American College of National Security Leaders, a nonpartisan organization committed to strengthening the United States’s national security initiatives.