During the March 3, 2016 Republican debate, Donald Trump proudly proclaimed something that he had only hinted at before: He endorsed war crimes. Bret Baier noted that “almost 100 foreign policy experts” had signed a statement saying that they could not support Trump because he had threatened to ask the military to target terrorists’ families and to employ torture techniques worse than waterboarding. Baier asked: “If you were president of United States, and the military declined to carry out an illegal order, what would you do?” In signature style, Trump doubled down:
They won’t refuse. Believe me . . . When you look at the Middle East, they’re chopping off heads. They’re chopping off the heads of Christians and anybody else that happens to be in the way . . . and now they’re asking about waterboarding. I said it’s fine and if they want to go stronger, I’d go stronger. Because that’s the way I feel. I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say ‘Do it,’ they’re going to do it.
When Baier followed up by asking about targeting terrorists’ families, Trump launched into a soliloquy about the “wives” of the 9/11 hijackers:
They left two days early with respect to the World Trade Center and they went back to where they went and they watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center, flying into the Pentagon and probably trying to fly into the White House except we had some very, very brave souls on that third plane.
The audience roared its approval. Like so much of what emanates from the president, that tale was a sloppy mash-up of demi-facts and spontaneous lies. Of the 19 hijackers, none had a wife or girlfriend living in the United States. Only two were married, and only one had a girlfriend (who lived in Germany). Some bin Laden relatives flew out of the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks.
Trump walked back his vow to order the U.S. military to violate the Geneva Conventions the next day, but then flipped toward barbarism again three months later in response to an attack at the Istanbul airport. “We have to be so strong. We have to fight so viciously and violently because we’re dealing with violent people viciously.”
Republicans who had worried about Trump’s commitment to the rule of law were reassured when Trump allowed that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis had talked him out of his fondness for torture. Republicans relaxed. The Trump presidency, they smiled, had not devolved to the standards of Westeros.
But the spirit of the torturer remains active. This week, President Trump pardoned former U.S. Army Lieutenant Michael Behenna, who was convicted of unpremeditated murder in the death of a suspected Al Qaeda member in Iraq. Trump signaled, according to Fox News, that he is “taking a broad look at veterans jailed for battlefield crimes and considering granting more of them similar relief.”
After Behenna’s unit lost two men to a roadside bomb, intelligence had identified Ali Mansur as a possible accomplice. He was interrogated, but the Army couldn’t find enough evidence to hold him. Behenna was ordered to escort Mansur back to his village. Instead, he stopped at a railroad culvert, stripped Mansur naked, and interrogated him at gunpoint before shooting and killing him. Behenna claimed self-defense, but the court was not convinced.
Perhaps Behenna deserved a pardon. He had already served five years in prison (he was paroled in 2014). He was reportedly a model prisoner. And war is hell. No one wants the split-second battlefield decisions of American soldiers second guessed by soft-cheeked bureaucrats whose closest brush with danger is stubbing a toe on a coffee table.
But the sensibility of the decision maker is crucial. Is Trump’s concern truly about a miscarriage of justice? Or is it the conviction that “we have to be so strong,” as he declared after the Istanbul attack?
In March, Trump tweeted that former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was being moved to less restrictive confinement “in honor of his past service” to the country. Gallagher faces war crimes charges. His accusers are fellow Navy SEALs—not pantywaist factotums in Washington. The SEALs allege that Gallagher was an out-of-control killer who shot women and old men as well as combatants. In one case, he is accused of stabbing an already severely wounded 15-year-old to death. He texted photos of the kill and then reportedly held a re-enlistment ceremony with the corpse. In another incident, a sniper said he saw Gallagher shoot a 12-year-old girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with friends. Navy SEALs reported these gross violations of the laws of armed conflict to superiors and were warned that speaking out could damage their careers. They did it anyway.
Think about that for a moment.
Trump has also weighed in via Twitter about Matt Golsteyn, a Green Beret accused of murder, calling him a “U.S. military hero.” Golsteyn admitted to killing a suspected Taliban bomb maker. It’s a tough case. There was evidence that the victim really was a bomb maker and that his release might have endangered a tribal leader who was working with the United States. There’s an alleged admission from Golsteyn that he shot him during an interrogation and buried him in a shallow grave. Golsteyn and an accomplice then disinterred the remains a day later and burned them. But just about everything in the Golsteyn case is muddled: Golsteyn disputes that he ever made that admission and posits a different version of the killing. And the lead investigator in the case has been charged with stolen valor, putting his integrity into question. If ever there was a moment to withhold judgment and let the military courts work, this is it. Instead, the commander-in-chief jumped onto Twitter to short-circuit his Army’s process and call Golsteyn a “hero.”
Without judging the merits of individual cases, these pardons and signals of support to Americans accused of murder and war crimes are exactly what alarmed many people about Trump’s candidacy. There is no evidence that Trump has made a careful study of the facts and circumstances. His brutal disregard for American values and the traditions of the U.S. military are painfully evident.
War does not excuse everything. Yes, atrocities are committed in all conflicts, but one way we judge nations and cultures is by how they respond to those crimes. Israel, Great Britain, and other civilized nations prosecute their war criminals. So do we. Many countries don’t. The Palestinian Authority names public squares after those who target and kill civilians. The PA claims that Israel does worse, which is false, but even if true, it wouldn’t justify it. And it certainly isn’t the model for us.
It makes you wonder what President Trump would say about My Lai. After all, the Vietcong committed worse atrocities. Would he have pardoned Lt. William Calley?
Trump may think that he’s upholding the honor of America’s military, but he’s doing exactly the opposite. He’s tarnishing it by insisting that upholding strict standards of conduct—which the overwhelming majority of our uniformed military do—makes them chumps. It doesn’t. It makes them the greatest professionals in the world, of whom we are justly proud.
As Waitman Wade Beorn, who led a combat platoon in Iraq, commented in the Washington Post,
Compared with our opponents in the modern age, we have taken much more care to prosecute warfare in accordance with the laws of war. We have systems of military education that highlight our values and the law of armed conflict. And we have a military justice system that, while not perfect, prosecutes and condemns those service members who commit atrocities. In short, we have a foundation of military ethics that our combat leaders can stand on.
Trump’s bumptious tough-guy talk—paired with his magically disappearing bone spurs—can provoke eye-rolling shrugs. But it should not be taken lightly. During the campaign, he barked “Take the oil!” and “Target the families!”
But now he’s commander-in-chief and taking concrete steps to undermine the values and traditions of our most important institution. The question now is not whether the military will obey an illegal order, but whether the nation will abide this ethical corrosion and slide in the savage direction that Trump embraces.