- President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency to three service members accused or convicted of war crimes has provoked strong reactions from the military and veteran communities.
- While many support Trump’s decision, others are concerned his actions are already having a detrimental effect on the military.
- “Overall, I think active-duty service members probably feel confused by the pardons,” Adrian Bonenberger, a writer and Army veteran, told Insider. “It has done damage to the soul of the military, of that there can be no question.”
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President Donald Trump’s decision to grant clemency to three service members accused or convicted of war crimes has provoked strong reactions from the military and veteran communities, both in defence of Trump’s actions and against them.
Trump intervened in the case of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, restoring his rank after he’d been demoted for taking a photo with the corpse of a teenage ISIS fighter.
He also pardoned Army Lt. Clint Lorance, who was serving a sentence for ordering members of his platoon to shoot at unarmed Afghan men, killing two of them, and Army Green Beret Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, dismissing charges he murdered an unarmed Afghan man he said was a Taliban bomb-maker before digging up and burning the body.
The New York Times reported Monday on the reaction of Navy SEALs and other veterans to Trump’s intervention in Gallagher’s case. Gallagher was found not guilty on murder charges during a highly unusual trial that was prefaced by the removal of the chief prosecutor, who was accused of trying to spy on the defence and a journalist, and had a dramatic confession by one of the prosecution’s witnesses.
“Most guys just want him to shut up and go away,” Eric Deming, a retired master chief petty officer and Navy SEAL, told The Times, lamenting Gallagher making a “spectacle of himself” during the dramatic case.
In the latest twist in Gallagher’s case, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was ousted after Trump called for Gallagher to retain his SEAL Trident. Navy officials had said Gallagher should face a review board, which would review his case and make recommendations about whether he should remain a SEAL to Adm. Collin Green, head of Navy Special Warfare Command. That review board has been cancelled.
“If the facts are on his side, he should trust in a board to make the right decision,” Deming said.
Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ed Hiner, who served with SEALs, told The Times he disagreed.
“From the beginning, Eddie was denied the presumption of innocence. And when he won at trial, the Navy tried to get back at him. He did eight combat deployments. He deserves better,” Hiner said.
Retired Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap, former deputy judge advocate general of the Air Force, told Military Times that he doesn’t think Trump’s actions will affect troop behaviour, though.
“I’ve actually never heard of anyone contemplating committing a crime including the remote possibility of a pardon into their calculation as to whether or not they will carry out their plan,” said Dunlap, director of Duke Law School’s Centre on Law, Ethics, and National Security.
Insider spoke with military veterans about the implications of Trump’s interventions in military justice in such a high-profile manner.
“Overall, I think active-duty service members probably feel confused by the pardons,” Adrian Bonenberger, a writer and Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, told Insider. “It has done damage to the soul of the military, of that there can be no question.”
“Donald Trump has in effect politicized active-duty troops,” Brandon Friedman, a writer and Army officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, told Insider.
Trump’s decision to grant clemency in the three cases, Friedman said, created an uncomfortable political divide: “If you oppose war criminals, you’re on the opposite side of the president.”
“It is certainly unwise of Gallagher and the others (I’ve only seen a recent appearance of Gallagher’s and part of Lorance’s appearance, both on Fox) to speak in public on what has become a political issue while still on active duty,” Bonenberger said.
Friedman also pointed out the alarming precedent set by Trump preempting the administrative review board that would have determined whether Gallagher can remain a SEAL.
“Now the president can decide who is what in the military,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that banana republics do.”
It also diminishes the US military’s reputation on the battlefield, Friedman said. “It sends the message that the Americans aren’t the good guys” and that US troops can commit war crimes with impunity.
With that precedent, Friedman and Bonenberger said, it’s less likely that troops who witness misdeeds will report them.
“It sends the message that if you kill civilians, you can get away with it,” Friedman said.
Ultimately, the president’s clemency – and how those who benefited from it have handled it – erodes the institution they served.
“It’s sad,” Bonenberger said. “With their pardon, they had an opportunity to behave wisely and honorably and in so doing truly rebut the charges against them. Thus far, they have done everything to ensure that they are seen instead as cynical, ‘me-first’ individuals, out for themselves, totally out of step with fundamental military values.“
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