George Washington said, “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable, procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.” The United States has the best military in the world, in part because our soldiers abide by, and believe in, good order and discipline. President Trump’s pardon of a war criminal and potential pardoning of other troops accused of war crimes strikes at the soul of our armed forces, undermines unit cohesion and weakens national security.
Trump never served. We did. One of us fought in the Iraq war. The other prosecuted members of the military who violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice. From the first day of basic training, like every member of the military, we were taught to follow orders, regulations and laws. Unit cohesion suffers and lives are put at risk when troops go rogue and are not punished.
Discipline is so important to the military that Article 134 of the Uniform Code specifically makes it a crime for members to engage in conduct that is prejudicial to “good order and discipline” or that “bring[s] discredit to the armed forces.” Enforcing discipline in an organization as large as the U.S. military requires the certainty of punishment for those who violate regulations or the law. If only certain provisions of the code are enforced, or if members think they can get away with crimes because of a presidential pardon, it will have a corrosive effect on every aspect of readiness, and it will encourage others to disobey orders.
All members of the military are taught to obey the Law of Armed Conflict, also known as the law of war. Its many provisions enshrine principles we all recognize as basic to appropriate military conduct, including this one: Unarmed civilians are not legitimate military targets. Articles 118 and 134 prohibit murder. It is criminal to intentionally kill a defenseless civilian or to kill prisoners of war.
Some of the war crimes committed by U.S. personnel are indistinguishable from murder.
Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone by a military court. He drove an unarmed Iraqi prisoner into the desert, stripped him naked and shot him in the head and chest. Trump recently pardoned him.
Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher has been charged with committing multiple war crimes in Iraq, including shooting an unarmed civilian girl and an unarmed civilian senior citizen, stabbing to death a defenseless teenage Islamic State captive, and indiscriminately spraying a neighborhood with rockets and machine gun fire. Seven members of SEAL Team 7 came forward and reported Gallagher’s actions to Navy authorities just as the law, their training and their honor demanded. Gallagher has pleaded not guilty. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn will be court-martialed for the killing of an unarmed Afghan. Golsteyn admits to the act; the Army calls it murder, he calls it a legitimate ambush. According to news reports, Trump is considering Memorial Day pardons for Golsteyn and Gallagher.
Our military follows the law of war not just because it is the moral thing to do but because it is critical to mission success.
When troops kill civilian children, senior citizens and prisoners of war without justification, those crimes make peace more difficult to secure and hand our enemies a great recruiting tool. If our adversaries know the American military will flout the law of war, they will be more inclined to do the same, including killing future American prisoners of war. If American troops don’t obey the law, Iraqi and Afghan officials will be less likely to cooperate with U.S. military efforts, and civilian anger will put our deployed personnel at increased risk.
We acknowledge the president’s pardon power is nearly unfettered (although it can’t be used to obstruct justice). Trump can pardon war criminals, and there is not much Congress can do to stop him. But we can speak up against this travesty.
Trump may think that formally forgiving those who have been convicted of or charged with committing war crimes is being pro-military. Exactly the opposite is true. Rather than bring “esteem to all,” Trump’s pardons would undermine good order and discipline, increase the risk to our deployed personnel, and stain the soul of our military.