Trump’s War-Crimes Pardons Weaken Our Military’s Moral Fiber

Members of the 30th Heavy Separate Brigade of the North Carolina Army National Guard salute during playing of the National Anthem. February 12, 2004. (Ellen Ozier/Reuters)

An ethically upright military takes decades or even centuries to build. It can be undone much more quickly.

People often offer cynical interpretations of American support for Israel. It’s the malign influence of the Jewish lobby, or Israel is a colonial outpost of the American hegemon, or Israel has brainwashed American policymakers. What these right-wing conspiracists, anti-Semites, and committed leftists miss is that there really isn’t any mystery about the bond between the U.S. and Israel. U.S. support for Israel, and vice versa, has been based on shared values.

Israel shares with the United States respect for human rights and the rule of law. Though often besieged by enemies who target innocent civilians in terror attacks, use their own civilians as human shields, and celebrate as heroes terrorists who massacre unarmed men, women, and children, Israel does not sink to that level. Though Israel vigorously defends herself, she does not resort to targeting civilians, nor to indiscriminate bombing (despite accusations to the contrary). And — this is crucial — when Israeli soldiers go too far and kill unarmed Palestinians, Israel does not name public squares after them. They are tried and punished.

It is never easy to hold one’s own military to account. Within Israel, soldiers tried for war crimes have had their supporters and trying them is controversial. But Israel’s willingness to hold itself to high standards marks it as a civilized country.

War crimes and abuses are part of war. No country is pure. What distinguishes the good guys from the bad is how the nation responds to those transgressions.

President Donald Trump’s latest assault on America’s moral standing was his decision, over the objections of the military and the pleas of his own defense secretary, to pardon three servicemen convicted of, or charged with, war crimes. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he tweeted. Note that Trump is not arguing that these cases are miscarriages of justice. He’s saying war crimes should not be punished.

Any number of current and former servicemen have bristled at this. We do not train our soldiers to be killing machines — and contributing to that stereotype is hardly pro-military. Veterans already face skepticism from potential employers out of misplaced fear that PTSD or some other combat-induced mania will incline them to murderous rampages.

While war does require aggression and violence, the U.S. military abides by (or used to) the Law of Armed Conflict and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. As Fred Kaplan noted, “American troops are trained as much in when not to shoot their weapons as they are in how to shoot them.” Our troops receive intense training in avoiding civilian casualties.

Trump’s pardons are a slap in the face to the dozens of Navy SEALs and others who risked their careers to come forward and report gross violations, and to the hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women who behaved honorably on the battlefield. Just as Trump offered a green light to Turkey’s strongman Recep Erdogan to slaughter our Kurdish allies, he’s provided permission to the American military to commit similar outrages.

Trump does not even understand morality — not in war, and not in peace. Glance at his pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an abuse-of-power poster boy. Arpaio arrested journalists who wrote critical pieces about him and even a county supervisor who got in his way. He sent a SWAT team to a suburban home supposedly looking for a cache of weapons. The goons wound up burning down the house and killing the family’s dog. No illegal weapons were found in the ashes.

We are at our best when we refuse to countenance crimes by our own. On March 16, 1968, Chief Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr. and two crewmen were flying a reconnaissance mission over a village in South Vietnam when they noticed the bodies of elderly people and children. It was My Lai. Seeing American soldiers advancing on Vietnamese civilians, Thompson signaled that his men would shoot if they killed any more. The massacre was halted.

Thompson’s actions that day eventually won him the Soldier’s Medal for “heroism not involving conflict with the enemy.” His conduct is taught at West Point.

As for Lieutenant William Calley, the only American soldier convicted of murder at My Lai, President Nixon altered his sentence to house arrest. But he didn’t pardon him.

Building an honorable ethic in the nation’s military has been the work of decades, even centuries. Undermining it can be the work of months. Admiral William McRaven has spoken up. Now would be a good time to hear from H.R. McMaster, James Mattis, Stanley McChrystal, Colin Powell, Joseph Dunford, and as many others as possible who care to uphold what is right.

© 2019

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