Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Ed Kilgore, and Eric Levitz discuss the possibility that President Trump will pardon U.S. soldiers who committed violence against unarmed combatants and civilians.
Ben: The New York Times reported on Saturday that President Trump is laying the groundwork to pardon several suspected or convicted war criminals, including a Navy SEAL who’s scheduled to go on trial soon for shooting civilians, a Blackwater contractor who had been convicted for his role in the killing of several unarmed Iraqis, and a group of Marine Corps snipers accused of violating the corpses of Taliban soldiers, among others. What does Trump’s willingness to use his power to wipe clean horrific crimes on the battlefield tell us about him that we might not have already known?
Ben: Okay, we can wrap there.
Ed: Well, it reconfirms his fidelity to the Jacksonian theory of national security, which can roughly be described as: “We don’t want to go to war, but if we do, we’ll kill ’em all and let God sort them out.” It’s a belief that once hostilities are under way, any sort of lethal violence is justified, with the laws of war being an illegitimate restraint on the laws of national sovereignty and self-defense.
Eric: Yeah. It serves as confirmation that Trump wishes to use his pardon power to signal, in no uncertain terms, that he believes it is good for armed agents of the state to brutalize suspected enemies, whether that’s Joe Arpaio terrorizing Latinos in Maricopa County or a Navy SEAL picking off little girls in Iraq.
Ed: If the Blackwater contractor — a mercenary, basically — gets a pardon, that will be particularly telling. This is not a member of the U.S. Armed Services. The peg to Memorial Day is also questionable: It’s a holiday set aside to honor those who died in military service to the U.S. In this case, Trump would be honoring very much alive men whose victims are very much dead. I’m not sure Trump makes these sorts of distinctions: All these holidays are good days for a parade or for jingoism.
Eric: I have to say I’m not surprised that Trump is doing this, but I was a little taken aback to learn that conservative media decided to make Edward Gallagher, the accused Navy SEAL, a hero. Naïve, I know. But there’s just so much culture-war fodder out there … Why celebrate the child-killer who alienated and terrified his fellow NAVY SEALs? Like, even if you’re completely indifferent to war crimes against foreign kids, this doesn’t work as a “support our troops” thing, since the conservative position is that the troops who didn’t do the war crimes deserve to be disbelieved.
Ed: It brought back very bad memories for me of the lionization of William Calley Jr. in the early 1970s.
Ben: There has been some backlash to these expected moves from military veterans. Mark Hertling, who served as commanding general for U.S. Army Europe, wrote for CNN that “those who have been convicted were individuals who either did not understand the requirements of every military member to abide by a professional ethic and a prescribed set of values, or they did not understand the implications such an action has for commanders who have the requirement to constantly maintain good order and discipline in the professional military force.” In a popular Twitter thread, Glenn Kischner wrote: “As a former career prosecutor, including 6 years as an Army JAG, this makes me sick.”
I don’t get the sense that the rank and file would be too thrilled with letting the people who violated their sacred code off the hook. Might this backfire on Trump politically, or could there be enough flak coming from soldiers that he decides not to go through with it?
Ed: I doubt he pays that much attention to JAG officers or brass hats on this sort of thing. If “the base” interprets the dispute as doubting the virtue of patriotic Americans who are taking the risks the rest of us rely on for our safety, then I’d imagine he’ll go right ahead. Most JAG officers don’t like torturing suspects or targeting the families of “terrorists,” either, but Trump endorsed both those practices when he was running for president.
Eric: Yeah. Fox & Friends are the only troops who matter here. That said, I haven’t actually seen many statements from veterans groups criticizing the apparent decision.
Ben: Hey, a man can hope.
Ed: I do think there is a deep strain of Jacksonism in the popular American attitude toward war, which is why Calley became sort of a national hero despite being admitting that he had fired bullets into small children while “following orders.”
Eric: I think there’s that, plus collective guilt about how few of us fight in these things anymore.
Ed: Yep, along with a sense that it’s the little guys who get thrown in the brig while the higher-ups skate. A lot of antiwar types defended Calley on those grounds.
Ben: Our own Chas Danner wrote over the weekend that beyond Trump’s predilection for favoring brute force and punishing the powerless, “the potential pardons must also be seen in the context of President Trump’s rarely veiled Islamophobia and how well that has played with his base.” What’s your take on where the president’s religious bigotry fits in here?
Ed: It looms pretty large. But if the U.S. invaded Mexico to “restore order” to our border, I would imagine him taking the same position re “collateral damage.”
Eric: He literally campaigned on the view “Mass murdering Muslim prisoners of war with bullets dipped in pig’s blood is a uniquely effective counterterrorism strategy,” and that to take out ISIS, the U.S. military should “take out their families.” The man just loves war crimes, especially against Muslims, though perhaps not exclusively against them.
Ed: “America First” appears to mean no one who gets in the way of Uncle Sam has a presumed right to stay alive.
Eric: He also wanted Old Testament justice against the Central Park Five, just generally believes in vicious brutality toward enemies.
Ben: But he’s a nice guy once you get to know him.
Eric: Least racist person I’ve ever met in my life.
Ed: If he were reflective enough to think about it, he’d probably come up with some elaborate theory that threatening to kill innocent civilians saves lives by intimidating people against any temptation to cross us. Sort of a visceral corollary of the “madman theory.”
As you may have noticed, Ben, Eric, and I harbor some pretty heavy-duty liberal bias against our president. We just can’t see fit to understand why he likes war crimes.
Ben: I just wish you’d give the guy a chance.