Two men accused of war crimes received presidential pardons on Friday, and a third had his demotion reversed. Donald Trump has earned jeers from predictable quarters: men and women in uniform who see these pardons as cheapening their oaths and dishonoring their service; fans of human rights and justice for victims; and, of course, people who simply dislike the president and consider his decisions defective by default.
Trump’s loudest defender is a Fox News correspondent, Pete Hegseth, who lobbied for these interventions and received advance word of them from Trump himself. Hegseth, a decorated veteran, argued that these men were betrayed by elements of the Department of Defense who hobble our “warfighters” with burdensome legal obligations. “If they make one tiny mistake,” Hegseth said on the air, “then a lawyer in the Pentagon is going to Monday-morning quarterback them.” The recipients of these pardons are “military heroes, accused or convicted of war crimes,” he claimed, correcting himself seconds later. “So-called war crimes.”
The backtracking wasn’t necessary: The actions these men were accused of most definitely qualify as war crimes. Killing three guys on a motorcycle when they are far away and carrying nothing more deadly than a cucumber—that’s a war crime. Killing old men and little girls with a sniper rifle is a war crime. Killing a prisoner with a hunting knife is a war crime. Waiting for an unarmed man to walk past you, then shooting him, is a war crime. Many of these actions, in addition to being unambiguous war crimes, just sound murderous and wicked on their face, which is probably why Hegseth almost never mentions them. He never goes into detail about the Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was acquitted of murder but convicted of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter. His demotion, since reversed, was his only real punishment—but his fellow warfighters found his ways so sickening that they reported him to their commanders and conferred about how to manage the apparent psychopath in their midst. “The president believes it should be commanders on the ground making these decisions,” Hegseth said. “And ultimately the benefit of the doubt should go to the guys pulling the trigger, especially when [critics] view these killings as politically incorrect.”