Pardons for The Worst of All Reasons

Last week, evidently against the advice of many of his military advisors, President Trump pardoned three U.S. soldiers. One is army First Lt. Clint Lorance. On July 2, 2012, Lorance ordered his soldiers to fire on three unarmed Afghan men on a motorcycle near their patrol. Two were killed by bullets from the units M240b machine gun, and the third was wounded. Several of the soldiers testified that the men killed posed no hostile threat at the time of the shooting.

The second is Special Warfare Operator Chief Edward Gallagher, whose rank the President restored to Chief Petty Officer. Gallagher was accused of murdering a wounded ISIS fighter in his care in 2017, but acquitted of that charge. Instead he was convicted of taking a photo of himself with the enemy’s dead body.

Last is Army Major Mathew Golsteyn. Golsteyn was facing charges of murdering an Afghan man in 2010. The man had been in U.S. custody. Allegedly, when he was released Golsteyn ambushed him, executed him, and destroyed his body in a burn pit.

Military Concerned

Many military officers expressed concern that these pardons would erode discipline and make it even harder to get soldiers to follow rules of engagement. That’s particularly troubling to those who think following these rules contributes to the overall effectiveness of U.S. forces. Another practical concern regards foreign countries that host U.S. troops. That is often based on the understanding that U.S. troops will follow the rules because of the threat of being held accountable by the military’s justice system.

Legitimate Reasons in Each Case

The truth is that there are legitimate reasons that can be advanced in favor of each of these pardons. For Lorance, it turns out one of the men killed had previously planted an improvised explosive device against U.S. soldiers, and the wounded man when on to do so subsequent to this incident. Even though Lorance didn’t know that at the time, it may have been incorrect for the judge to have impressed upon the jury at trial that the three men killed were civilians.

In the Gallagher case, the chief prosecutor attempted to track defence lawyers’ emails without permission and was eventually removed from the proceedings. Regarding Golsteyn, the army’s lead investigator pleaded guilty to making false official statements and wearing unauthorized decorations on his uniform. Golsteyn also claims the man he killed had killed two soldiers under his command four days before.

In fact, a chief purpose of the President’s pardon power is to provide relief from prosecutorial misconduct and to allow circumstantial information not relevant at trial to be considered in sentencing. But this is not the explanation Trump used to explain his decision.

Trump Tweets His Reason

On October 12th, Trump tweeted, “Mathew (Goldsteyn) is a highly decorated Green Beret who is being tried for killing a Taliban bombmaker. We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!”

Trump’s argument seems to be that we knowingly and enthusiastically train soldiers to be killing machines, as he puts it. Then it’s hypocritical for us to punish them for not following some rules a bunch of lawyers or politicians came up with. Real soldiers aren’t meant to obey these rules in the first place! This is absolutely, emphatically wrong.

With this attitude, all the Geneva Conventions, and all the progress that has been made shielding civilians from warfare would be out the window. What we’ve come to realize in the last century is that ‘killing machines’ armed with ever increasingly powerful weapons, and potentially even nuclear weapons, can be the end of everything.

Investigating and punishing war crimes is already so difficult military leaders frequently seem to believe they can get away with almost anything.  When the United States commander in chief states clearly that he doesn’t even think war crimes should be prosecuted we’ve taken a terrible step back.

Sources and More information

Trump’s Pardons for Servicemen Raise Fears That Laws of War Are History from the New York Times

Trump grants clemency to troops in three controversial war crimes cases from the Military Times

Trump ignores Pentagon advice and intervenes in military war crimes cases from CNN

Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

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