Reports are circulating that the President may be planning on issuing pardons to several high-profile servicemen accused of various war crimes during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has requested expedited paper work and files on several cases, presumably aiming for announcements on Memorial Day.
One request is for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher of the Navy SEALs, who is scheduled to stand trial in the coming weeks on charges of shooting unarmed civilians and killing an enemy captive with a knife while deployed in Iraq.
The others are believed to include the case of a former Blackwater security contractor recently found guilty in the deadly 2007 shooting of dozens of unarmed Iraqis; the case of Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, the Army Green Beret accused of killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010; and the case of a group of Marine Corps snipers charged with urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.
Not for the first time, of course, I find myself wishing I could consult with my late father, Maj.(Ret) Jack A. Marshall, Sr., who distinguished himself in combat and leadership in defense of his country on two continents during World War II. War crimes was a subject he spoke about often. He described them exemplifying a break-down in discipline and training. He also said that the whole concept of war crimes was an oxymoron, and he was remarkably sympathetic to soldiers who were charged and convicted of crimes against civilians. He was contemptuous of non-combatant bystanders, like journalist and politicians, who condemned the men who faced stresses, challenges and threats they could never comprehend.
My Dad, in discussing one war crime arising out of Vietnam, told me that he doubted if any long-time combat officer could honestly say that his conscience was completely clear. One episode from his experience, which he wrote about in his memoirs, involved his unit taking a town that had formally surrendered, white flags and all. The town’s mayor pronounced the town joyful that it had been liberated; the German soldiers were all captured and accounted for, all seemed to be well, and then several GIs were killed by gunfire from houses. The non-uniformed residents all swore that “soldiers” had done the shooting, not them.
My father’s commanding officer lined up a group of townspeople and had them executed. Then he told the mayor that if one more American was shot by “soldiers,” he would be next, and the rest of the town, man, woman and child, along with him.
“That was war crime,” my father said. “And at the time, I–all of us—thought it was completely justified.”
The President will really be kicking a hornets nest this time, though as we have learned, he likes kicking hornets’ nests. There are enough knee-jerk Trump critics in the news media and the “resistance” who have thinly-veiled dislike and distrust for the military anyway, under the best of circumstances. One can imagine how they will react to the President they detest pardoning these officers and soldiers.
Yet a pardon doesn’t signal that the object of executive mercy and compassion is innocent, or did not do wrong. Thinking back on my conversations with my father, I can conceive of him saying that such pardons could be defended. They would state, he might have argued that having been trained to fight and kill, having put themselves in peril for their country, having been subjected to intense hostility from a populace and finally yielding to anger, hate, and perhaps fear, these soldiers deserved to be told by their country, not that they did the right thing, but that its gratitude for their service and sacrifice should be expressed in forgiveness.
Or he might not have seen it that way at all.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz Of The Day:
Can the pardons of military war criminals be ethically justified?