This post is co-authored with my ethics colleague at NPS, Dr. Bradley J. Strawser. It is based on a potential op-ed we authored in May 2019.
Disgraceful Pardons: Dishonoring Our Honorable
Six months ago, there were reports that President Trump was planning to pardon several military members who are charged with war crimes and others who have been convicted of war crimes. It was said he was going to do this on, of all days, Memorial Day – the solemn day we honor all members of the military who have given their lives in defense of our Nation. Thankfully, or so we thought, such a disgraceful and previously unfathomable act did not come to pass last May.
But now it has. President Trump has pardoned several military members who have been convicted of war crimes by the military’s own justice system. Serving as professors of Professional Military Education (PME) at various institutions across several decades, we have dedicated our careers to the ethics education of our nation’s military professionals. We are deeply troubled by the negative impacts such pardons will engender. We must ask ourselves what precedent these pardons will set and what message this conveys both to our own military and society, and to the world. We are particularly concerned because the actions were announced on all three cases at the same time, even though the cases involved different issues, raising questions about what message is being sent about war crimes and military professionalism in general.
The pardons involve three different cases. One is the Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher who was charged with indiscriminately shooting unarmed civilians and stabbing a captive ISIS fighter in 2017, and ultimately convicted of the desecration of a corpse. Another pardon involved the shooting of an unarmed Afghan by Army Major Mathew Golsteyn, who faced an upcoming murder trial – which now won’t happen. Perhaps worst of all, Trump also pardoned Army 1st Lieutenant Clint Lorance – who was tried and convicted of murdering unarmed civilians who posed no threat. Lorance ordered his men to fire on these unarmed Afghan villagers, and then falsified reports to cover up his misdeeds. His own men – rightfully – turned him in immediately. The US military’s own justice system tried and convicted Lorance of this war crime. President Trump decided to intervene in these cases and pardon all three men.
Our military is a profession, a community of practice given unique permissions to act on behalf of the common good in defense of the nation. When they act, they do so in our name, representing our nation and our values. This profession has moral norms that members pledge to uphold when they take the oath, including a commitment to the Constitution, good order and discipline, and self-sacrifice. These values give meaning and identity in difficult times, allowing for group cohesion and combat effectiveness under pressure. These values are also essential to waging war in ways that are broadly morally justified and that the public can support. And these values allow individuals to wage war while preserving their dignity and moral identity so that they can serve honorably, return home, and reintegrate with society.
Classically, professions are self-regulating; we see this in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) governing military actions and accountability. These pardons could do lasting damage to both the Profession and to our civil-military relations, including the ideal of civilian control of the military. That sacred trust is predicated on those professional values and the understanding that the military is willing and able to hold themselves accountable.
Consider how these pardons could impact the decisions of a soldier on the ground. Perhaps the soldier had a friend die in combat and is flooded with the understandable human emotions of anger and revenge, and yet must now make difficult, risky decisions discerning between combatants and civilians. One can imagine that soldier, generally restrained and disciplined, now tossed into the horrors of war, wondering if he too will simply be pardoned if he were to violate his Rules of Engagement.
Further, such pardons will almost certainly soil our reciprocity with other nations who share a commitment to International Humanitarian Law and the Law of Armed Conflict (including the Geneva and Hague Conventions). These accords maintain a level of trust and cooperation within the international system and aim to minimize the suffering inflicted in war. These agreements represent the hard-won lessons of past conflicts; they are not mere diplomatic pleasantries. These pardons undermine the commitment of the United States to these norms and send a clear message that we refuse to hold our own military members accountable. The damage to our soft power and moral authority in the international context will be profound. Will our allies want to fight with us? Will our adversaries be slower to surrender if they fear maltreatment, thus extending conflicts and increasing suffering on all sides? One can only imagine the propaganda boom these pardons will now be to the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda in their recruiting efforts. We are not being hyperbolic when we say that this move by the President forever stains any claims we may stake of the moral high ground in war.
We do not have to go far into the past to see these kinds of harms in effect. Part of the legacy of Vietnam was a need for a moral reckoning and recalibration after the images and actions of that conflict – such as the My Lai massacre in 1968 – were seared into our national consciousness. We are justifiably proud of the effective, honorable, and professional force that our military has since worked to become. They today enjoy exceedingly high levels of public trust and positive international respect – a Pew Research Center study from 2018 found that 80% of Americans trust the military and have high confidence in them to act in the best interests of the public. The willingness of our system, through the Profession of Arms, to hold our own military accountable to moral and legal standards is one central reason for this trust.
These pardons of our war criminals by President Trump and the interfering with and disrespecting of our own military justice system is unprecedented. They are shameful and a national disgrace.
We make a plea to our fellow citizens and political leaders across both sides of the aisle, on behalf of that proud military community we serve as educators: stand up and speak out against these pardons. Show our service men and women what we as a nation actually believe about their honorable service. Speak loudly to our allies around the world that this is not who we are. There are no political ‘sides’ here to rally around or to be used to score political points over. Rather, we should rally around justice and the rule of law.
The President’s pardoning of these war criminals dishonors the noble service and sacrifice of so many others who have waged war on our behalf the right way. On this, none of us can remain silent.
Dr. Pauline M. Shanks Kaurin
Dr. Bradley J. Strawser
The views expressed here are those of the authors alone and do not represent the Department of the Navy or their respective institutions, nor are they written in any official capacity related to positions held with the DON.