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Opinion Adherence to the laws of war is essential

In May, President Trump pardoned Michael Behenna, center, shown in 2014 with his girlfriend and brother. Behenna is a former U.S. soldier who was convicted in 2009 of killing an Iraqi prisoner.
In May, President Trump pardoned Michael Behenna, center, shown in 2014 with his girlfriend and brother. Behenna is a former U.S. soldier who was convicted in 2009 of killing an Iraqi prisoner. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman/AP)

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey’s warning in his May 26 op-ed, “Trump’s war-crime pardons would dishonor our forces,” that pardoning soldiers convicted or accused of committing war crimes would damage troop discipline, military justice and our national commitment to abide by the laws of war was spot on. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the modern Geneva Conventions, adopted to end killing and abuse of civilians, prisoners of war, the wounded, the sick and health-care workers in war. Gaining adherence to these now-universal norms of conduct remains a struggle, but we must work to see their promise fulfilled, not to undermine them by pardoning those who commit war crimes.

At the United Nations, the Trump administration has sought to undercut other key values of the conventions: that health care should not be denied to anyone who is wounded or sick, whether friend or enemy, and no health-care provider should be punished for providing that care. Alleged terrorists and those who treat them, the administration argued, can be excluded from these universal principles. Fortunately, its position was rejected.

The experience of torture at Guantanamo and CIA black sites showed the terrible consequences of rejecting the values of the Geneva Conventions. We should not allow it to happen again.

Leonard Rubenstein, Alexandria

The writer is director of the Program on Human Rights, Health and Conflict at the Center for Public Health and Human Rights at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

American adherence to the laws of war is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed, the most celebrated laws were issued at a time of maximum national peril. It was April 24, 1863, just a few months before the Battle of Gettysburg. The orders in this original form, the Lieber Code, were issued by President Abraham Lincoln.

Their author, Francis Lieber, was a highly respected professor of the law of nations at Columbia University. His sons fought on both sides of the Civil War. The motivation for their issuance may have been a fear on Lincoln’s part that, without a clear statement of what was permitted, commanders on the scene might take matters into their own hands, inviting retaliation.

Whatever the motivation, the Lieber Code became the basis for U.S. adherence to the laws of war. It was humane and practical. In turn, it became the basis for the Hague regulations of 1907 and the Geneva Convention of 1929. As codified in U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10 and successor Defense Department orders, it is still a source of law and pride in the American military.

If we weakened adherence to these laws, the result would be retaliation against our soldiers in the field. To what purpose? There are always times of danger, but I think that few would argue that our nation is now in greater peril than we faced a few months before the Battle of Gettysburg.

William S. Shepard, Easton, Md.

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