Many former officials have warned that Trump’s war-crimes pardons undermine “good order and discipline,” a jargony way to say that they signal the rules don’t matter. A military force where the rules don’t matter is not one that can fight effectively or with the necessary moral or strategic restraint.
Defenders of Trump’s pardons dishonor service members by treating them as conscienceless automatons who need make no distinction between combatants and civilians. But murder, under color of authority, is still murder.
“This notion that things are tough out there? We all get that, but you still have to observe the rules,” Eugene Fidell, a former president of the National Institute of Military Justice who teaches at Yale Law School, told me. “Our war-fighters are subject to the rule of law like any other government official.”
Every service member who has faced combat has experienced the anguish of losing comrades, the difficulty of facing an enemy that disguises itself and does not obey the laws of war, and the frustration of a conflict seemingly without end. The Uniform Code of Military Justice provides for juries made up of service members to ensure that those who render verdicts are themselves cognizant of the exigencies of warfare. But the fact that a relative handful of service members responded to those difficulties by desecrating corpses, deliberately killing civilians, or engaging in premeditated murder illustrates that calling them “killing machines” is a profound insult masquerading as praise.
“I will always stick up for our great fighters,” Trump told the crowd at a rally in Florida yesterday. “People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.”
The seven Navy SEALs who told investigators that Gallagher shot unarmed civilians from his sniper nest, including “a girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with other girls on the riverbank,” after being warned that doing so could “cost them and others their careers” were not sitting in an office. The soldiers who testified that Lorance ordered his unit to fire on unarmed Afghans who were “definitely not any type of threat” were not luxuriating in an air-conditioned building. They were at just as much risk on the battlefield, and yet they chose to adhere to the rules they were charged to uphold.
“Trump’s actions constitute a betrayal of the military, of all of those service members who actually exercise disciplined restraint in the heat of battle,” VanLandingham says. “His actions betray the real warriors, and betray the American people who expect those in uniform to wield force per the law and to comport themselves honorably on and off the battlefield.”
Trump does not believe in generally applicable legal restraints on the force employed by armed agents of the state, military or civilian. It would be a mistake, however, to view Trump’s pardons as stemming from a deep reverence for the military or an understanding of the difficulties faced by service members. Rather, he views these crimes as acts of nationalist solidarity against Muslims, against whom crimes are not simply acceptable but praiseworthy. Trumpists are capable of recognizing the evils of excessive state power—but only when it is directed at those they see as like themselves. When it is directed at those they hate and fear, such excesses are not crimes but virtues.