In 2016, President Trump ran on a war crimes platform. He vowed: “I would bring back waterboarding. And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” (Japanese soldiers were convicted after World War II in a war crimes tribunal for waterboarding American and Allied prisoners.) He also promised to “take out” the families of terrorists and approvingly recounted a false story about Gen. John J. Pershing executing 49 Muslim rebels in the Philippines, employing bullets dipped in pig fat.
These blood-curdling threats from an armchair general who skipped out on the Vietnam War were very much at odds with the ethos of Trump’s first secretary of defense, retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who had exhorted his Marines at the start of the Iraq War: “Engage your brain before you engage your weapon. ... Carry out your mission and keep your honor clean.” Mattis dissuaded Trump from issuing an unlawful order to torture terrorists, Trump said, by telling him: “I’ve always found, give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that than I do with torture.”
But this turned out to be only a temporary reprieve. Just as no amount of evidence can convince Trump that other countries don’t pay tariffs (American consumers do), so no amount of evidence can convince him that brutalizing prisoners and civilians is not a good idea. He said in 2017 that he was still “absolutely” an advocate of waterboarding but was deferring to Mattis.
Well, Mattis isn’t around anymore. He has been replaced by the ineffectual acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, who has no military experience and no standing to challenge Trump. And so Trump is back to praising war crimes.
He is not, to be sure, ordering the Defense Department to torture suspects or kill their families — any more than he is ordering the military to seize Iraq’s oil, another 2016 campaign brainstorm. Such an order would likely be refused, just as the Department of Homeland Security refused Trump’s instructions to deny refugees an opportunity to apply for asylum. But Trump appears intent on achieving a similar effect through the back door by pardoning soldiers who have been accused of war crimes.
In early May, Trump pardoned former Army First Lt. Michael Behenna, who was convicted of “unpremeditated murder in a war zone.” In 2008, U.S. troops captured an Iraqi man, Ali Mansur, who was suspected of planting a roadside bomb that had killed two of Behenna’s friends. But the military couldn’t find any conclusive evidence against Mansur, and Behenna was ordered to return him to his village. Instead, Behenna took Mansur to a secluded spot, stripped him naked, interrogated him and then shot him in the head and chest. The court-martial rejected Behenna’s claim of self-defense.
In pardoning this convicted murderer, Trump was just getting started. The New York Times reports that the president may stage a grotesque commemoration of Memorial Day by pardoning a whole slate of accused war criminals. They include:
— Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher. Fellow SEALs testified that in Iraq in 2017, Gallagher would routinely fire a heavy machine gun into civilian neighborhoods “with no discernible targets,” that he shot a girl in a flower-print hijab and an unarmed old man with his sniper’s rifle, and that he stabbed to death a captured, wounded Islamic State fighter who appeared to be about 15 years old.
— Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn. He is accused of murder for killing an Afghan prisoner who was a suspected bomb maker. According to prosecutors, Golsteyn and two other soldiers then disposed of the body in a burn pit. Golsteyn admitted to the killing on television but claims it was justified.
— Nicholas A. Slatten. He is an Army veteran who was found guilty of first-degree murder for his actions as a contractor in Iraq in 2007: He and other Blackwater contractors opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad, killing 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including 10 women and two children.
— Four Marines who were found guilty of dereliction of duty after they were videotaped urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban fighters.
Obviously, the severity of these offenses varies greatly — from the relatively minor (the urination) to the horrifying crimes of which Gallagher is accused. What all these cases have in common is that the military chain of command thought it was imperative to bring charges to maintain good order and discipline, while right-wing commentators have rallied to the defense of the accused. Guess which side Trump is on?
Having no honor of his own, Trump doesn’t understand the importance of Mattis’s injunction to keep one’s honor clean — to maintain the thin line that separates professional, disciplined soldiers from the Mongol hordes of the 13th century or the German SS. Trump is telling the troops: Don’t listen to your superiors. Ignore the rules of engagement. Feel free to commit atrocities in the expectation of a presidential pardon.
There is no more corrosive message a commander in chief could send, which is why so many veterans who served honorably are so appalled by what Trump is doing. If Congress had any honor of its own, Trump’s incitement of unlawful behavior by the troops under his command would be yet another count in the articles of impeachment against him.