Disgraceful Pardons: Dishonoring Our Honorable
Six months ago, there were reports that President Donald Trump was planning to pardon several military members who are charged with war crimes and others who have been convicted of war crimes. It was said he was going to do this on, of all days, Memorial Day — the solemn day when America honors all members of the military who have given their lives in defense of the nation. Thankfully, such a previously unfathomable act did not come to pass last May.
But now it has. Trump has granted clemency to several military members who have been convicted or accused of war crimes by the military’s own justice system. As professors at the Naval War College and the Naval Postgraduate School and military ethicists, we have dedicated our careers to the ethics education of our nation’s military professionals, though the views expressed here are our own and do not represent the Department of Defense or our respective institutions. These pardons engender a multitude of damaging impacts, set a profoundly negative precedent, and convey a deeply troubling message to our own military and society, and to the world. That the actions were announced on all three cases at the same time is particularly concerning, even though the cases involved different issues, as it seems designed to send a broader message about war crimes and military professionalism in general.
The acts of clemency involve three different cases. One is the Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher who was charged with indiscriminately shooting unarmed civilians and stabbing a captive ISIL fighter in 2017, and ultimately convicted of the desecration of a corpse. Trump directed that Gallagher be restored to his previous rank. The president pardoned Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who faced an upcoming murder trial — which now won’t happen — for the shooting of an unarmed Afghan. Perhaps worst of all, Trump also pardoned Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance — who was tried and convicted of murdering unarmed civilians who posed no threat. Lorance ordered his men to fire on these unarmed Afghan villagers, and then falsified reports to cover up his misdeeds. His own men — rightfully — turned him in immediately. The U.S. military’s own justice system tried and convicted Lorance of this war crime. Trump decided to intervene in these cases and grant clemency to all three men. It is worth noting that the senior military leadership was against these acts of clemency and had “robust” conversations with the president urging him to not take these steps, but to instead trust the military justice system.
Our military is a profession, a community of practice given unique permissions to act on behalf of the common good in defense of the nation. Professions are marked as distinct from other groups by their expertise, service for the common good, shared norms and practices, and self-regulation of members (both for entrance to and expulsion from the community). When they act, they do so in our name, representing the nation and its values. This profession has moral norms that members pledge to uphold when they take the oath, including a commitment to the Constitution, good order and discipline, and self-sacrifice. These values give meaning and identity in difficult times, allowing for group cohesion and combat effectiveness under pressure. These values are also essential to waging war in ways that are broadly morally justified and that the public can support. And these values allow individuals to wage war while preserving their dignity and moral identity so that they can serve honorably, return home, and reintegrate with society.
Classically, professions are self-regulating — we see this in the Uniform Code of Military Justice governing military actions and accountability. These acts of clemency could do lasting damage to both the military profession and to American civil-military relations, including the ideal of civilian control of the military. That sacred trust is predicated on those professional values and the understanding that the military, as a profession, is willing and able to hold itself accountable. This interference into the military profession’s own system of accountability turns that trust upside down. Commanders are entrusted with the authority to maintain good order and discipline within their ranks. With these decisions, Trump has violated the trust that society gives to the military profession and undermined a key pillar of the civil-military relationship.
Consider how these acts could impact the decisions of a soldier on the ground. Perhaps the soldier had a friend die in combat and is flooded with the understandable human emotions of anger and revenge, and yet must make difficult, risky decisions discerning between combatants and civilians. One can imagine that soldier, generally restrained and disciplined, now tossed into the horrors of war, wondering if he too will simply be pardoned if he were to violate his rules of engagement.
We do not have to go far into the past to see these kinds of harms in effect. Part of the legacy of Vietnam was a need for a moral reckoning and recalibration after the images and actions of that conflict — such as the My Lai massacre in 1968 — were seared into our national consciousness. We are justifiably proud of the effective, honorable, and professional force that our military has since worked to become. Today, they enjoy exceedingly high levels of public trust and positive international respect — a Pew Research Center study from 2018 found that 80 percent of Americans trust the military and have high confidence in it to act in the best interests of the public. The willingness of our system, through the profession of arms, to hold our own military accountable to moral and legal standards is one central reason for this trust.
An additional legacy of Vietnam is the impact of moral injury on returning military members, their families and communities. Moral injury is more than guilt or regret, but involves a sense of betrayal of what is right, and ensuing compromise and injury to one’s moral capacity and agency. As psychologist Jonathan Shay documented in his book Achilles in Vietnam, moral injury has profound impacts on the individual, as well as the larger society. Shannon French and other ethicists have noted the role that the moral norms and values of the profession play in protecting against moral injury.
The pardons of our war criminals by Trump, and his interference in and disrespect of our own military justice system is unprecedented and should trouble all Americans. We will not pull punches — they are shameful and a national disgrace.
The controversy and Trump’s interference has continued to breathtaking new levels. The Navy, and specifically Rear Admiral Collin Green — commander of the SEALs Naval Special Warfare Command — started an administrative review process, conducted by other SEALs, in order to remove Gallagher’s trident. (The SEAL trident is the device SEALs wear to signify they are part of the elite community.) This move, rather than being vindictive, was rightly cheered by many within the military, and ourselves, as a way for military leadership to send an important message to their troops. Namely, that despite the president’s clemency, these war crimes are not tolerated and bring discredit on the honorable service of all others. As such, Gallagher would be removed from the community of SEALs, by other SEALs.
But even this action by military leadership could not go unagitated by Trump. When news of Green’s decision to start the process to remove Gallagher’s trident reached Trump, he tweeted out that he would intervene yet again and stop it. This disrespect of our military profession dismayed military leadership so much that apparently Green and others threatened to resign in protest if Trump proceeded to carry out the threat. The saga didn’t end there, however, as over the weekend, disagreements over the matter did indeed led to the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer. In his resignation letter, Spencer wrote that “the rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and time again.” Spencer lamented that it has become apparent that the president does not share this understanding and that he “cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag, and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The whole mess is a dreadful breakdown of the American civil-military trust and relationship happening in real time, all stemming from Trump’s insistence on interfering with military justice and refusing to allow commanders to lead. One would be right to think that at least this action — deciding who is among their number — is something the president could leave to the SEALs; let SEALs decide who is a SEAL. This is a hallmark of all classic professions, and especially of the profession of arms. It is wrong to violate that norm and trust.
We make a plea to fellow citizens and political leaders across both sides of the aisle, on behalf of that proud military community we serve as educators: stand up and speak out. Show our servicemen and women what we as a nation actually believe about their honorable service. Speak loudly to allies around the world that this is not who we are. There are no political “sides” here to rally around or to be used to score political points over. Rather, we should rally around justice and the rule of law.
The president’s clemency of these war criminals dishonors the noble service and sacrifice of so many others who have waged war on America’s behalf the right way. On this, none of us can remain silent.
Dr. Pauline M. Shanks Kaurin has a PhD in Philosophy from Temple University and served in the Department of Philosophy at Pacific Lutheran University for 23 years. She currently serves in the College of Leadership and Ethics at US Naval War College. She is the author of numerous publications on military ethics, including The Warrior, Military Ethics and Contemporary Warfare: Achilles Goes Asymmetric and On Obedience: Contrasting Philosophies for Military, Citizenry and Community
Dr. Bradley J. Strawser is an Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, and a Research Associate at Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict (ELAC) in Oxford, UK. Formerly, he was a Resident Research Fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership in Annapolis, MD and taught philosophy at the University of Connecticut and the US Air Force Academy. He is the author of numerous publications, including Who Should Die? The Ethics of Killing in War, Binary Bullets: The Ethics of Cyberwar, and Killing bin Laden: A Moral Analysis.
The views expressed here are those of the authors alone and do not represent the Department of the Navy or their respective institutions.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article appeared to suggest that President Donald Trump pardoned Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher. That is inaccurate. Trump issued an order “directing the promotion” of Gallagher to the “grade of E-7, the rank he held before he was … found not guilty” of murdering a captive Islamic State fighter and attempted murder of Iraqi civilians. Gallagher was, however, convicted of posing for photos with the captive’s dead body.