President Donald Trump’s pardoning of disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher and other troops accused of war crimes is damaging the military, perhaps the single most highly regarded institution in America today. And a pair of law professors explained this week just how bad that is for us.
Trump interfered during Gallagher’s trial by publicly proclaiming him not guilty and floating a pardon. In the end, Gallagher was acquitted, but found guilty of posing for a picture with a prisoner’s dead body, a violation of the military code of conduct. But Trump pardoned him entirely and restored his rank. When the Navy tried to convene a review board to determine if Gallagher should be terminated as a SEAL, Trump raged and fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, who has since skewered Trump publicly for interfering with a matter of military justice and enabling soldiers to commit war crimes with impunity knowing that Trump will pardon them.
And that’s why his interference is so dangerous and could end up giving our military a black eye, not only in our country, but around the world.
In a Lawfare Blog article earlier this week, law professors Rachel E. VanLandingham and Geoffrey S. Corn warned that Trump’s interference is hurting the military.
“This chaos in military discipline and personnel actions is the direct result of Trump’s reckless dismissal of the judgments of his military commanders and his misunderstanding of the profession of arms,” the duo wrote. “The president has legal authority to intervene in these matters, but his misguided actions risk not only undermining the authority of his commanders, but also, eroding the honor and integrity of the U.S. armed forces. The Spencer/Esper soap opera may be at the forefront of the news cycle, but the real story is the corruption of military good order and discipline.”
Apparently, Trump now expects the disgraced soldiers he has pardoned to campaign for him in exchange, another quid-pro-quo that Congress may want to look into.
Trump’s actions not only undermine military rules, but also international law as well.
“Many, perhaps including the president, may consider the crime for which Gallagher was convicted — of posing for photos with a dead enemy — quite trivial,” the law professors wrote… “But discipline in war means following rules. These rules are part of U.S. and international law — in fact, international law that the U.S. was the first to codify —and central to the legitimate use of national military power.”
They went on to point out that Trump’s actions prove his disdain for military justice and our top commanders who maintain discipline in the ranks.
Trump’s overt disdain for the highly effective military justice system and the commanders who rely on it to hold subordinates accountable for battlefield misconduct has been on display from the inception of Gallagher’s court-martial. His disdain was apparently not tempered even after Gallagher was acquitted for the most serious charges of war crimes. Instead, the president intervened to reverse the punishment meted out by the same military jury that acquitted Gallagher of the most serious offenses.
“The trouble is that he misunderstands the issues of both force and ethic,” the pair concluded. “The force that wins wars is disciplined, not unrestrained and indiscriminate. And the ethic of the U.S. military is one of honor gained by adherence to the rules of war no matter how extreme the situation — or how powerful the temptation to break them.”
We should also consider the damage his actions will cause our national security. After all, our allies have to be able to trust that our troops will conduct themselves professionally and follow the rules of engagement. Surely, our allies don’t want to associate with a nation that condones war crimes. Our commitment to punishing war criminals is what sets us apart from our enemies, and it’s why our military is the best in the world. Trump has only tarnished our reputation and the prestige our military has enjoyed for decades. And there will be consequences. Maybe not today, but soon.
Featured Image: Wikimedia