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Pardons for War Criminals

As he was expected to do, the president intervened in three military justice cases to give pardons to two of the war criminals and restoring the rank of a third:

President Trump intervened in three cases involving war crimes accusations on Friday, issuing full pardons to two soldiers and reversing disciplinary action against a Navy SEAL despite opposition raised by military justice experts and some senior Pentagon officials.

The president has the power to do this, but Trump has misused that power to give war criminals a free pass. Interfering in the process before one of these cases went to trial was wrong, and overruling the punishment meted out in the other two was even worse. Trump’s action undermines military discipline. It sends a horrible message that U.S. forces will be allowed to get away with anything. Finally, it insults the hundreds of thousands of other people that have served honorably in the military. Trump probably thinks that by pardoning accused and convicted war criminals he is proving how “pro-military” he is, but by doing this he is showing blatant disrespect for the military’s own practices and system of justice.

Trump’s interventions in these cases is something his predecessors have never done:

Experts were unable to name any other recent case of a member of the American armed forces receiving a presidential pardon for a violent crime committed in uniform, except for one granted by Mr. Trump in May. And it was strikingly unusual, they said, to clear a soldier of murder charges before the case is tried.

“I’m not sure it’s ever been done,” said Gary Solis, a retired military judge who served as an armor officer in Vietnam.

The longer that U.S. wars abroad drag on, the more likely it is that standards of conduct will be debased. Pardoning a few war criminals today helps pave the way for the commission of even more war crimes in the years to come. Trump’s pardons subvert military justice now, and they also encourage more outrages in the future. One way that the pardons will encourage more of the same is the way that these men have been hailed as heroes:

Troops who testified in those two cases, against Lieutenant Lorance and Chief Gallagher, voiced disappointment and disbelief over Mr. Trump’s plans for clemency before they were announced.

“The tragedy of pardoning Lorance isn’t that he will be released from prison — I’ve found room for compassion there,” said Patrick Swanson, a former Army captain who was Lieutenant Lorance’s company commander in Afghanistan. “The tragedy is that people will hail him as a hero, and he is not a hero. He ordered those murders. He lied about them.”

The Lorance case is particularly striking because there is no doubt that he is guilty of murder, and he has just been let off the hook:

Mr. Lorance was a rookie Army lieutenant who had been in command of a platoon in Afghanistan for two days in July 2012 when he ordered his troops to fire on unarmed villagers who posed no threat, killing two men. He then called in false reports over the radio to cover up what had happened. He was immediately turned in by his own men.

There is a place for clemency, but there is no reason to grant it to someone who committed such an atrocity and then tried to cover it up. The response to Trump’s action has understandably been one of disgust:

Trump’s willingness to pardon war criminals should come as little surprise when he openly campaigned on committing war crimes. As a candidate, he talked about using torture on detainees and killing the families of suspected terrorists. As president, he has backed the Saudi coalition war on Yemen without reservation despite the long record of Saudi and Emirati war crimes against innocent Yemenis and loosened the rules of engagement in our own bombing campaigns.

The president overruled the advice of top Pentagon officials in these cases:

Top military leaders have pushed back hard against clearing the three men. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy have argued that such a move would undermine the military code of justice, and would serve as a bad example to other troops in the field, administration officials said.

Trump has tended to defer to his military advisers on most things, so it is telling that this time he dismissed their concerns. He can be talked into perpetuating unnecessary and unwinnable wars, but when it comes to holding war criminals accountable he can’t be bothered to listen. As in everything else, the president doesn’t respect the laws governing the conduct of military personnel in war, and he doesn’t have a problem with the men that break those laws. On the contrary, he takes the side of the war criminals.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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