war crimes

Will Trump Go Nixonian With Clemency for War Criminals?

Lieutenant William Calley, convicted perpetrator of the 1968 My Lai massacre. Photo: Joe Holloway Jr/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Memorial Day is Monday, May 27. It’s a day traditionally set aside to honor those who have died in military service to the United States. But if press reports are accurate, the president may use the holiday this year to honor service members (and perhaps military contractors) who are very much alive, unlike the victims they allegedly dispatched against standing military orders and the laws of war. My colleague Chas Danner explains:

President Trump may pardon several U.S. service members who have been accused or convicted of serious war crimes, including the mass murder of civilians, the New York Times reported Saturday. On Friday, the Trump administration filed expedited requests for the necessary paperwork to issue the pardons on or just after Memorial Day — condensing what is normally a months-long process into a little more than a week. The typical “Trump may change his mind” caveat applies, but if not, the pardons would provide yet another striking demonstration of how little the president understands or cares about the rule of law or the nature of service.

The pardons reportedly under consideration involve a Navy SEAL officer, Edward Gallagher, who is soon to go on trial for allegedly killing multiple unarmed Iraqi civilians, and a Blackwater gunman, Nicholas Slatten, who has already been found guilty of murdering ten women, two men, and two children, also in Iraq.

The cases bring back memories of an earlier figure in U.S. military and criminal history who was convicted of killing unarmed civilians and then was granted executive clemency: Army Lieutenant William Calley, platoon leader in the notorious My Lai massacre of 1968, in which over 350 Vietnamese civilians were killed. In 1971, Calley was convicted by a military court of 22 counts of premeditated murder and handed a life sentence, which was almost immediately commuted by President Richard Nixon. Eventually Calley would receive another commutation from the Nixon administration, and by 1974 was free.

While Nixon never publicly embraced the “war is hell” theory, many Calley defenders justified the massacre on the grounds that in a combat situation, any people in enemy territory, even small children and infants, are fair game. Calley also benefited from sentiment, even among strongly antiwar Americans, that he was being scapegoated for orders explicitly or implicitly given by higher-ups who were never brought to justice. The two different rationalizations led Calley to become a strangely popular figure, as the New York Times reported at the time:

Avalanches of letters, telegrams and phone calls, the overwhelming majority of them protesting the judgment at Fort Benning, Ga., have inundated the White House, Congress, the Pentagon and the news media.

Protest marches have been held in many cities, and more are scheduled. Some state legislatures and city councils have passed resolutions condemning the verdict. Thousands of petitions have been signed.

At the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan yesterday, hundreds of persons signed “Free Calley” petitions at two tables set up on the concourse. Around them knots of people were engaged in vociferous argument over the case.

Taking note of the public outcry, the White House announced yesterday that President Nixon would personally make the final decision on Lieutenant Calley’s fate after thorough review of the case.

Before you knew it, Calley was no longer facing a long stretch in prison.

Growing up at that time in Georgia, not that far from Fort Benning, I remember the “rallies for Calley,” and his local celebrity status after his release. He did ads for a local car dealer in nearby Columbus, as I recall. This was a guy who admitted to firing bullets into small children cowering in drainage ditches (he did, in 2009, finally apologize for his acts, but not with any specificity).

Nixon, then, was mostly responding to public pressure on Calley’s behalf. If Trump acts similarly to condone war crime, he won’t have that excuse.

Or will he? As Danner noted, Gallagher and another possible beneficiary of Trump clemency, Green Beret Major Mathew Golsteyn, accused of killing an unarmed Afghan civilian he suspected of Taliban links, have been vocally defended by Pete Hegseth on Trump’s favorite news source, Fox & Friends. That may be all the public pressure he feels he needs.

Will Trump Go Nixonian With Clemency for War Criminals?