Donald Trump made it pretty clear when he was running for president that he thinks compliance with international laws of war offends his America First principles and his zest for inflicting maximum lethal force on any population that harbors enemies, broadly construed. He has repeatedly endorsed the use of torture against terrorism suspects and has advocated killing the civilian family members of enemy combatants. And tempting as it is to attribute this simply to the brutalistic instincts for which many Trump fans appear to love him, it does reflect his Jacksonian approach to world affairs, in which America prefers to avoid armed conflict but will kill anything that moves if we are crossed. And to the extent that war crimes are committed against Muslims … well, he seems to regard that as just deserts. Like his friend Kim Jong-un, our president believes in collective responsibility for affronts to his country and regime.
So it was no surprise last week when the president pardoned one convicted war criminal, pardoned an accused war criminal before he could even be tried, and reversed a demotion in rank for a third service member who had been acquitted of murder but convicted of other offenses related to the killing of a civilian — who was a Muslim, like the victims of the other two men. Trump had been wanting to carry out high-profile pardons of war criminals for a good while; he was talked temporarily out of doing so in conjunction with Memorial Day, a holiday set aside to honor those who died in war, not those who lived after committing outrages, as the Daily Beast reported at the time:
Trump, while monitoring much of the reaction in newspapers and cable news last month, had not expected the blowback to be as fierce and widespread among veterans as it was. Eventually, he decided to tap the brakes on the highly controversial idea, with the possibility of revisiting it in the future.
Now he’s finally getting his way, in violation not only of national and international norms but of the principle of civilian deference to the military’s own standards of discipline. As the New York Times observes, the brass are very unhappy about Trump’s interference with military justice:
Top military leaders have pushed back hard against clearing the three men. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy have argued that such a move would undermine the military code of justice and would serve as a bad example to other troops in the field, administration officials said.
But it’s likely that “setting a bad example” is precisely what Trump wants to do to let service members know he has their back if they get a little carried away with killing. Perhaps the most renowned pardon beneficiary, Navy SEAL chief Edward Gallagher, “had a reputation as a ‘pirate’ — an operator more interested in fighting terrorists than in adhering to the rules and making rank,” as the Times put it when he was acquitted of first-degree murder. Trump views himself as something of a swashbuckler, so you can see how he’d be more attracted to Gallagher than to his rules-abiding brothers-in-arms or superiors.
Morality and military discipline aside, Trump’s pardons violate the traditional understanding that humane treatment of civilians and POWs by the U.S. military has significant national-security value, as David Frum noted:
The armed forces of the United States do their utmost to fight lawfully and humanely not only because it is the right thing to do. They do their utmost because it is also the smart thing to do. Every war ends. The memories from that war persist for decades.
So will memories of these pardons. I’m sure Trump thinks they will strike fear into the hearts of America-hating Muslims everywhere, but they brand the United States as a nation that loves its outlaws, from the White House right on down through the ranks.