While the issuing of pardons is undoubtedly within the constitutional authority of the presidency, the recent decisions have sparked a contentious debate in military affairs and national security discussion circles. What does this mean for civil-military relations, the public’s opinion of the military as an institution, and U.S. domestic politics?
Here are some takeaways from these recent events.
The recent pardons are constitutionally sound, but organizationally controversial
Presidential interventions in military justice matters seldom avoid controversy. While the power to offer pardons rests with the Oval Office, presidents have generally supported the decisions of the military justice system. However, as veteran and former defense official Phillip Carter remarks, the recent pardon decisions are uniquely challenging to the military’s attempts to “lay the ghosts of the Vietnam War” to rest. These ghosts have lingered since President Nixon’s intervention on behalf of William Calley, architect of the infamous 1968 My Lai Massacre in which a small hamlet in Vietnam was the scene for some of that conflict’s worst atrocities.
As many national security analysts and military veterans have noted, such pardons risk implicitly signaling that such actions are organizationally acceptable behavior. Similar concerns were expressed after the May pardoning of former Army officer Michael Behenna, convicted of similar misconduct during a 2008 deployment in Iraq. However, advocates for the pardons argue that military service members have been unduly constrained by organizational policies governing combat action. The resulting debate has drawn in a variety of voices on both sides.
Ex-military voices have been central in the decision — and the backlash
The pardons for Golsteyn and Lorance come at the end of several years of advocacy from prominent ex-military members of Congress and media personalities. The White House’s statement specifically mentioned Marine veteran and Rep. Duncan D. Hunter and former Army officer and “Fox and Friends” pundit Pete Hegseth. The list of past advocates for a pardon also includes ex-Navy SEAL and former interior secretary Ryan Zinke and retired Army lieutenant colonel and former congressman Allen West, who himself was relieved of command in Iraq and after his improper treatment of a detainee.
But if ex-military voices featured prominently in the case for the pardons, they have also loudly denounced it. The announcement by the White House was roundly condemned by retired Army Gen. Mark Hertling and retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis. A statement by retired Marine commandant Charles Krulak (which itself invoked past statements by Sen. John McCain and Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs) decried the measure as “relinquish[ing] the United States’ moral high ground.”
The presence of so many ex-military voices in the political debate highlights worries amid national security scholars regarding the potential politicization of the military. It also shows the relevance of a larger discussion about maintaining proper operation of U.S. civil-military relations.
The decisions create potential challenges for civil-military affairs
The president carries sole authority for the issuing of executive clemencies. Statements by both the Army and Navy took particular care to make that explicit in their response to the pardon decisions. But the decision itself, made over the objections of senior defense officials, is the latest of several stories detailing the challenges that divergent worldviews and ethical frames have had on U.S. civil-military relations.
More specifically, the decisions place the military institution in a potentially difficult position, as civil-military relations scholar Steve Saideman noted after the Behenna decision in May. By staying out of the discussion, the military risks being seen as implicitly approving the behavior of the soldiers in question; by engaging directly in it, they risk violating dearly held norms governing civilian control of the process. But there is important utility to an ethically grounded fighting force: not simply to maintain the “high ground” morally, but as Dempsey remarked, failure to do so “signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously.”
As many scholars will attest, a central feature of strong democratic governance is a military that is structurally subordinated to civilian control and avowedly nonpartisan. However, the outcry by many over the recent pardon decisions undoubtedly raises questions over precedent in organizational ethics and, as Army lawyer and legal scholar Dan Maurer has noted, about the nature of judicial independence within the military itself.
There may be big political implications to the pardon decisions
The decisions don’t just affect the functioning of civil-military affairs. They have potentially significant political implications as well. Republican lawmakers and conservative media personalities such as Hegseth have played an important role in advocating for the pardons. This may speak to the larger political benefits at stake as a critical election year begins. Furthermore, perceived benefits among the Republican base may be part of the reason for the decision.
In a 2017 survey experiment as part of my own research, I measured partisan reactions among a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. respondents, gathered through an online propensity-score matched panel from the survey firm YouGov. The respondents were exposed to various types of negative institutional behavior by the military, rooted in actual news stories, and I compared their expressions of trust in the military institution with a control group that received placebo information.
While independents were mostly perturbed by battlefield failures or mistakes, Democrats found organizational scandals or ethics violations the most problematic. Republicans, on the other hand, were unmoved by any new information about failures or mistakes by the military. These results point to a widening partisan gap over public judgments about the military, which though the most esteemed institution in U.S. society, is far more trusted by Republicans than other demographics.
The pardons effectively end the procedural discussion over the legal fate of these former soldiers. It is unlikely that the larger debate over military politicization, organizational ethics and civil-military relations will end any time soon.
Michael A. Robinson (@m_robinson771) is an assistant professor of international affairs at the U.S. Military Academy and an active-duty Army strategist. He holds a PhD in political science from Stanford University where his research focused on civil-military relations, public opinion and political polarization. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the U.S. Military Academy, the Defense Department or any part of the U.S. government.