President Donald Trump has intervened in three high-profile murder cases involving U.S. service members, dismissing charges against a Green Beret accused of killing an Afghan man, pardoning a former Army officer serving 19 years for ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed Afghan men, and promoting a Navy SEAL who was convicted of posing with a dead body but acquitted of more serious charges.
By way of an explanation, the president wrote on Twitter over the weekend, “Our great warfighters must be allowed to fight.” Of course, no one has ever suggested that American servicemen and women in uniform should be prohibited from fighting for their country. The question is whether they should also be “allowed” to ignore the code of conduct and commit acts which might be adjudged war crimes.
For military justice experts and some senior Pentagon officials, the proper thing for Trump to have done was nothing. He ignored them.
I can appreciate why the president may think he’s showing support for “the troops” by intervening in these cases. Trump tends not to consider any subject in any real depth, so from his limited perspective, to appreciate the service of those who wear the uniform means protecting them when they’re accused of serious wrongdoing.
That’s largely backwards.
The New York Times published a worthwhile piece from Benjamin Haas, advocacy counsel at Human Rights First and a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, who explained the issue in a way the president should try to understand.
In reality, Mr. Trump’s meddling undermines the military’s institutional values, risks endangering American service members, and disrespects the honorable service of the overwhelming majority of veterans.
The military strives to ensure that its members adhere to the laws of war and respect human rights…. The lessons service members learn about the laws of war are not an afterthought. Rather, they are central, emphasized time and again — from training sessions and exercises, to military ethics discussions, to actual combat deployments. The Army’s official values, after all, demand that soldiers “do what’s right, legally and morally” and “treat others with dignity and respect,” making no exceptions for civilians or even enemies.
The military requires its members to operate in accordance with the laws of war for good reason. Disregarding the laws of war – which Mr. Trump has done by intervening in these cases – jeopardizes mission accomplishment and the safety of service members; excessive civilian casualties, for example, can stimulate further violence, turn local populations against American forces, and discourage allies from collaborating with the United States. Mr. Trump should realize that the laws of war actually serve to benefit our armed forces.
This wasn’t a dynamic in which active-duty troops and veterans stood with the accused, so Trump took steps to appear “pro-military” ahead of his re-election campaign. There’s ample evidence of the opposite, with troops and veterans taking a stand in support of military discipline, the rule of law, and the integrity of the Uniform Code of Military Justice system.
There’s no evidence, meanwhile, that Trump knows or cares about any of this.
It’s clear that the president has the authority to take this action, but it’s equally obvious that it was the dishonorable thing to do.
Postscript: For a variety reasons, the parallels between Nixon’s presidency and Trump’s are very much in vogue, but Trump’s move on Friday calls to mind Nixon’s intervention in Lt. William Calley’s case in 1971.