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IRREPARABLE HARM

Trump Will Disgrace Memorial Day by Pardoning Convicted and Accused War Criminals

The commander-in-chief's actions will jeopardize national security by undermining the code of conduct within our military, and by feeding into the propaganda of our enemies.

Lawrence J. Korb5.24.19 5:01 AM ET

President Trump has made requests for the paperwork of four individuals, who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, for the purpose of pardoning them on Memorial Day.

One is for Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, a Navy Seal who is scheduled to stand trial at the end of May for shooting unarmed civilians – specifically, a young woman and an unarmed elderly man, as well as killing a 15-year-old captive with a knife while deployed to Iraq in 2017. Second is Major Mathew Golsteyn, an Army Green Beret convicted of killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010. Third, a group of Marine Corp snipers who urinated on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters. Fourth, a Blackwater contractor convicted of shooting dozens of unarmed Iraqis.

If the president follows through on these pardons, he will demonstrate a profound lack of understanding or appreciation for Memorial Day, the military justice system, and the law of armed combat. Rather than honor the military personnel who have and continue to serve our nation, his pardons will do a great disservice to them and to the country for which they have defended and sacrificed so much.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday established for remembering those who have given their lives in service to the country because of their belief in its ideals. Pardoning living servicemen who have been accused of and in some cases found guilty by their peers of serious war crimes undermines those ideals, and expresses utter disdain for the  military justice system.

These men have been charged by their commanders after thorough investigations and some convicted by their peers, people who have been in combat and know the horrors of war. They were not convicted by some international body, like the International Criminal Court, or by a foreign court.

Even worse, Trump’s actions will jeopardize national security in at least two significant ways. First, they will undermine the code of conduct that helps units maintain discipline even under the most trying circumstances. Why would people in a combat unit risk their lives by observing the laws of armed conflict and controlling their instincts when others have mitigated their own risk by committing egregious acts against the enemy – and gotten away with it? Moreover, granting these pardons sends a message to those who become aware of crimes not to bother reporting them. Why risk your own career and the opprobrium of some of your fellow servicemen and your superiors—as was the case with those who first reported Master Chief Gallagher’s alleged crimes—when the convictions can be overturned for no good reason?

Second, these pardons will also feed into the narratives of terrorist groups, like al Qaeda and ISIS, that the US is an evil, anti-Muslim nation. This narrative will incite anti-Americanism and help these groups get more recruits and supporters, not only in the Middle East but around the world. It will also alienate populations whose support the US needs and countries that host American troops in the fight against terrorism, while making it more difficult to cooperate with allies who hold their troops to a higher standard.

Unfortunately, some of the damage may already be irreparable. In the first week in May, the president pardoned Michael Behenna, a former Army lieutenant who had served five years of his 15-year sentence for shooting an unarmed, naked Iraqi detainee in the head and chest in 2008. In addition, President Trump has already publicly praised Major Golsteyn and Chief Gallagher.

Why is Trump is doing this? The answer, plainly, appears to be because of pressure from Fox News and various conservative groups. Between December 2018 and May 2019 on at least 25 occasions, Fox hosts lobbied on air for all or some of these men, and one host, Peter Hegseth, actually lobbied Trump personally.

Trump should instead listen to military leaders—like former Marine Commandant General Charles Krulak, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and the late Senator John McCain—about the damage these pardons will do to our country, and to the men and women who serve and have served it.

Larry Korb, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, served on active duty for four years as Naval Flight Officer, and retired from the Naval Reserve with the rank of captain.

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