Trump war-crime pardons would be wrong. Let military justice run its course

Reports that President Trump wants to issue pardons for several U.S. servicemen who’ve been convicted or credibly accused of war crimes are very troubling.

That Trump may use Memorial Day weekend as a platform to announce clemency in high-profile cases of extreme misconduct makes it even more troubling. The holiday is a time to honor the legacy of those who unquestionably upheld the highest standards of the uniformed services.

Here in the South Sound, JBLM has hosted some of the most ghastly war-crime trials of the post-911 era. The base and its surrounding communities know full well the importance of letting military justice run its course.

Unfortunately, Trump seems poised to continue his pattern of pardoning military personnel prosecuted for killing unarmed Iraqis and Afghans — an action that many respected former military leaders have strongly discouraged.

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, in a CNN interview, warned that for Trump to do so would be “immoral.” Hertling, who speaks with the knowledge of a 37-year Army veteran, said pardons would sow discontent among rank-and-file troops, give a tacit blessing to a mob mentality and undermine “the rules and regulations that contribute to good order and discipline in the military.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the indiscriminate use of pardons would send a message to allies that “we don’t take the law of armed conflict seriously.”

The White House is looking into clearing the records of several service members and private security contractors charged with crimes dating back to 2007, at least two senior U.S. officials told The New York Times and other news media. Incidents include the killings of unarmed Iraqis and Afghans and the desecration of a corpse.

The case attracting the most attention is that of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, charged in the death of an injured teenage ISIS combatant in Iraq in 2017. Fellow Navy SEALs claim he also shot at Iraqi civilians and hit two.

Gallagher’s defense has been taken up by Fox News commentators and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican. He’s entitled to a presumption of innocence. But any interference by the president would be highly inappropriate, as the case hasn’t gone to trial.

Institutions of military justice expose the bad actors who aren’t worthy of our proud armed forces tradition. But South Sound residents know from experience that war-crime trials can be hard to watch.

Robert Bales, a sergeant from a JBLM Stryker Brigade, was convicted of single-handedly slaughtering 16 Afghan villagers in a 2012 massacre. Calvin Gibbs, a staff sergeant in another local Stryker unit, got his comeuppance as the mastermind of a notorious “kill team” in 2010; he was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of three innocent Afghans that were staged to look like combat casualties.

Ugly as these trials can be, they underscore the need for clear rules of engagement during warfare and ensure that the men and women who wage it on our behalf are held to strict standards of professionalism and integrity.

Trump, sadly, has become known for intemperate remarks — first as a candidate and now as president — that betray indifference to, or ignorance of, military law and order. He repeatedly said Army deserter Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl should be executed. At times he’s advocated service members “taking out” the families of terrorists and “getting rough” with immigrants at the U.S. border.

And in a twisted irony, the commander in chief who supports war-crime defendants has made a habit of vilifying bonafide war heroes, like the late U.S. Sen. John McCain.

One only hopes cooler heads prevail at the White House and the president controls his impulses to meddle in military matters for political gain. Memorial Day should remain a hallowed occasion honoring those who fought, bled and died for values emblemized by the U.S. flag.