No need to worry about war crimes, Trump has soldiers' backs: Neil Macdonald

Trump's pardons for Americans accused of war crimes aren't unique, but his bragging about them is, writes Neil Macdonald.

Trump's pardons for Americans accused of war crimes aren't unique, but his bragging about them is

President Donald Trump holds his hand over his heart during the national anthem, at a full honors welcoming ceremony for U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper at the Pentagon on July 25. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

To the surprise of no one sensible, the president of the United States is now pardoning convicted and accused war criminals, and effectively advising the Pentagon not to prosecute American soldiers who commit atrocities in other countries.

Bref, on Friday Donald Trump pardoned an army lieutenant serving 18 years for ordering the murder of unarmed Afghan civilians in 2012. He preemptively pardoned a former Green Beret officer accused of ambushing and killing an Afghan prisoner a short time after his release by military authorities. And he ordered the promotion of demoted Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who was reported by his own comrades for shooting at civilians and posing with the corpse of a 15-year-old prisoner after accusers say he shoved aside a medic and stabbed him (Gallagher posed holding the corpse up by its hair, blade in his hand, bragging "got him with my hunting knife.")

Gallagher's case has generated the most coverage; Trump began tweeting his support for the SEAL long before his trial.

Not only did the president make it clear he considered Gallagher a hero and that the Navy might as well not bother with the prosecution, he actually lashed out at Navy prosecutors, declaring that he'd directed the Pentagon to rescind their military achievement medals.

Gallagher's supporters, meanwhile, began appearing on Fox News Channel, declaring that the Navy's leadership, in daring to prosecute Gallagher, was "making a mockery of the president." The website of the pro-Gallagher fundraising campaign even redirected visitors to the company from which Gallagher had purchased his famed hunting knife.

Basically, Gallagher's supporters depicted the entire Navy leadership as part of the "deep state" Trump's supporters suspect is constantly undermining their hero.

These, of course, are the same people who will tell you with hand on heart that the United States military is the most moral military the world has ever seen.

U.S. Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher answers a question from the media with wife Andrea Gallagher after being acquitted on most of the serious charges against him during his court-martial trial at Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, Calif., on July 2. (John Gastaldo/Reuters)

The White House characterized the pardons as mercy. Trump is merciful, and soldiers, after all, are trained to kill.

As Trump has said: "You know, we teach them how to be great fighters, and then when they fight sometimes they get really treated very unfairly."

Trump is also reportedly considering pardoning the only U.S. mercenary punished for the wanton civilian killings the State Department's hired guns carried out in Iraq after the 2003 American invasion.

Military and legal scholars have pointed out that in castigating and thwarting the Pentagon's legal system, Trump is sending a bright and clear message to troops in the field: Go ahead, do what you have to do, forget the rules of war, there'll be no punishment. Your superior officers might not have your back, but your president does.

All of that, of course, is exactly what Trump is telegraphing.

There's an even nastier presidential message, too, one that's going mostly unsaid. Murders, Trump is effectively telling the troops he commands, are not really murders when the corpses are brown and Muslim.

Pretty clearly, Trump believes this will go over well with his core supporters, whom he desperately needs to keep loyal during next year's election. No doubt he's right.

Trump is doing nothing his predecessors have not done, or that other democracies do. The only difference is that other leaders and governments don't brag about it.

But what's missing from the coverage is the fact that aside from his asinine tweets, Trump is doing nothing his predecessors have not done, or that other democracies do. The only difference is that other leaders and governments don't brag about it.

Lt. William Calley, arguably America's most famous war criminal, was convicted 50 years ago of leading the slaughter of 22 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai, but was immediately transferred out of military prison to house arrest on the orders of President Richard Nixon, in much the same manner as Trump ordered Eddie Gallagher's transfer to a more comfortable setting after his arrest.

In this April 23, 1971 photo, Lt. William L. Calley, Jr., is seen during his court-martial at Ft. Benning, Ga. The former Army lieutenant was convicted of the 1968 killing of 22 civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. (Joe Holloway, Jr/AP)

Calley, who'd drawn great public sympathy, was released from house arrest after a few years. After all, he'd been trained to kill, hadn't he?

Trump's direct predecessor, Barack Obama, never attacked his own generals or officials on Twitter, and never referred to war criminals as heroes. But when faced with the question of what to do with the CIA agents and soldiers who carried out torture and murder in the so-called "black sites" into which enemy combatants (or those merely thought to be enemy combatants) disappeared following the invasions ordered by George W. Bush, Obama declared that he wanted to "look forward as opposed to looking backwards," an Obama-like way of saying they're all off the hook. (Bush had simply obtained a legal opinion from government lawyers authorizing torture).

The best explanation I ever heard for such retroactive forgiveness came from former SS general Wilhelm Mohnke, a man wanted by Canada for executing Canadian prisoners in what were known as the Normandy Massacres.

There are never any war criminals on the winning side.- Former SS general Wilhelm Monhke

"There are never any war criminals on the winning side," Mohnke told me in 1985 when I found him in Hamburg.

Mohnke further suggested I ask my father, who participated in the D-Day invasion, what Canadians did with captured German prisoners. I eventually did. My dad shrugged and replied that they were of course taken over the nearest hill and shot. Prisoners slow you down and eat your rations, was the rationale.

Historians have recorded that Canadian units in the Great War were famous for punishing and killing even wounded prisoners. (Tim Cook, who authored histories for the Canadian War Museum and documented Canadian war crimes, was careful to include a Trump-like caveat that those soldiers should not be judged without an understanding of the stress of war.)

And of course there were the Canadian bomber crews, sent out during the Second World War to bomb German civilian centres, who became so angry when their actions were documented by filmmakers Terence and Brian McKenna's 1992 The Valor and the Horror.

To give the Canadian military credit, it did prosecute several soldiers for torturing and killing a Somali prisoner in the early '90s; Italian troops committed similar crimes in the Horn of Africa, but an Italian inquiry basically whitewashed the affair.

And in the past 20 months, Israeli snipers have killed more than 200 Gazans, including women, children and medics, and wounded thousands of others, in response to protests at the border fence that surrounds that benighted territory. The Israel Defence Forces, which prides itself on its "Code of Purity of Arms," has convicted exactly one soldier of misconduct. He got a month in the brig and a demotion for killing a 14-year-old. Which means all the other killings and woundings were done strictly in compliance with Israel's idea of military law.

Pte. Elvin Kyle Brown is followed out of the courthouse at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in March 1994. He was convicted and sentenced to five years for his role in the death of Somali teenager Shidane Arone. (John Hryniuk/Canadian Press)

The point, I guess, is that the laws of war are imposed mostly on the losing side, as the old Nazi Mohnke noted. There's a reason the United States opposes the very existence of the International Criminal Court, at least where American war crimes are concerned.

And the public in any country tends to overlook bad and criminal behaviour by its men and women in uniform. It just takes a vulgar loudmouth like Donald Trump to glorify it.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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