President Trump already has brought presidential pardon power into disrepute by using it to reward political supporters and ideological allies. He would be taking that abuse to an even more outrageous extreme if he decides to pardon members of the U.S. armed forces accused or convicted of war crimes. But that is precisely what the president might do, perhaps in a grandiose gesture on Memorial Day.
The most prominent potential recipient of clemency is Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL facing a court-martial on charges that he shot unarmed civilians and stabbed a teenage Islamic State fighter in Iraq in 2017. Fox News, which functions as a kind of electronic kitchen Cabinet for the television-obsessed president, has helped build a case for Gallagher’s release.
Administration officials have also reportedly been laying the pardon groundwork for Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, charged with killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010, and three Marine snipers prosecuted for urinating on the corpse of an Afghan fighter in 2011. Trump is also considering clemency for a former Blackwater security guard who was convicted of murder in December for killing unarmed Iraqis in 2007.
Earlier this month, Trump pardoned former Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, who had been convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone after killing a suspected Al Qaeda terrorist in Iraq. Behenna’s conviction had been controversial, and a number of military and elected officials supported his bid for clemency. But the possibility of further pardons of service members accused of war crimes has alarmed current and former military leaders.
Wholesale pardons of accused or convicted war criminals send a dangerous signal to U.S. troops that, as retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it, “we don’t take the law of armed conflict seriously.” That perception also can serve as a rallying cry for America’s enemies and an excuse for brutality against U.S. forces.
In other contexts, Trump has seemed to yearn for the days when official brutality was tolerated or even expected. In remarks in 2017 to police cadets on Long Island in New York, the president suggested that officers needn’t protect the heads of suspects they’re pushing into police cars. (“You can take your hand away, OK?”) In April of this year, he lamented that U.S. military forces deployed on the border with Mexico “can’t act like a military would act because if they get a little rough, everybody would go crazy.”
Trump should heed the pleas of distinguished military figures that he refrain from grants of clemency that would be perceived as a license for service members to engage in brutality on the battlefield. Far from honoring the military, such pardons would be a mockery of those who served this country and sometimes gave their lives for it without acting like torturers or thugs.
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