None of the services seems happy with President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon two service members accused of war crimes, and reverse the demotion of a third. The Navy’s reply, however, sets some kind of record of disdain. The Twitter account of the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Information Office wrote on November 15: “As the Commander in Chief, the President has the authority to restore Special Warfare Operator First Class Gallagher to the pay grade of E-7. We acknowledge his order and are implementing it.”
Those icy words breathe the mood of the admonition from Band of Brothers: “We salute the rank, not the man.”
To understand why the Navy—and the other services, too—reacted so negatively to the pardons, here’s a story I heard on a visit to Germany a couple of months ago. I had the chance to talk with a senior U.S. officer in that country.
The officer had been posted all over the world during his long and distinguished career, but his very first overseas assignment took him to Stuttgart in 1983. The move into the apartment left behind a mess in the street: packing tape, that kind of thing. He knew how conscientious the Germans are about litter. But he had little children then and he was exhausted after the move, so he fell asleep intending to wake up early the next day to finish the job.
He did rise early, only to find that somebody had done the job for him. He interpreted this as passive-aggressive criticism by a neighbor, so he knocked on the next door to apologize. The door was answered by an older man who spoke clear, although strongly accented, English. Yes, the neighbor had cleaned up the mess. No, no apology was necessary. He had noticed that the officer had a young family, and he understood how difficult it was to move with children. The neighbor had wanted to extend a welcome, because he was a great admirer of the U.S. military.
“Where did you learn such good English?” asked the officer of his new friend.
“Do you have family there? A job?”
“No, I was a prisoner of war. I was captured in Tunisia in 1943.”
“I’m sorry you met America that way.”
“Don’t be. I ate better in America than I ever ate in the Afrika Korps. And I’m alive, which I would not be if I had not been captured. So when I see American soldiers, I always try to say, ‘Thank you.’”
The American officer who told me the story would later lead part of the cleanup effort at Abu Ghraib, after the exposure of maltreatment of prisoners there. He told his troops in Iraq: The way the U.S. Army had treated German POWs in 1943 paid security dividends for 40 years afterward. The way the Army treats its prisoners today will matter just as much 40 years from now.
The armed forces of the United States do their utmost to fight lawfully and humanely not only because it is the right thing to do. They do their utmost because it is also the smart thing to do. Every war ends. The memories from that war persist for decades.
War is horrible enough when fought honorably. To join dishonor to horror is no victory for any American cause.