Opinion | What Message Is Trump Sending to Soldiers?

Opinion | What Message Is Trump Sending to Soldiers?


President Trump’s consideration of pardons for several service members convicted or accused of war crimes is disturbing. It would send the wrong signal to United States troops under his command, undercut the country’s well-established military justice system and call into question America’s longstanding commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

Horrific if not illegal conduct would be condoned at the highest level, setting a new and very dark precedent and detracting attention from the honorable actions of millions of United States service members.

Over many years of service leading and advising Marines in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, we worked closely together to ensure everyone in the command understood not just the legal aspects of the law of armed conflict but also the reasoning behind them. We also stressed how, especially in a counterinsurgency environment, our daily actions, not just our words, made an impact for good or bad with the local population.

As a rifle company commander in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, stated, “Every day, we are hunting and helping” — hunting the enemy, and helping the people who ultimately will determine the success or failure of our campaign.

Combat — grueling, exhausting and deadly — demands extraordinary teamwork, exacting discipline and a bedrock of ethical and moral clarity. Leaders’ solemn obligation is to equip their teams with tools and training to win the fight while never losing their moral compass. The most successful combat units we witnessed were fierce on the battlefield but also well trained and highly disciplined in carrying out their responsibilities with prisoners of war, detainees and civilians.

We spent a lot time making sure that was adhered to during occasions as violent as epic battles in Falluja, Iraq, and in Helmand. Holding our troops to a high standard is not an easy task. It requires a thorough approach at the tactical level and small-unit combat leadership dedicated to upholding strict rules of engagement. If abuses or crimes take place, the Uniform Code of Military Justice provides defendants with representation and due process. That system, established in 1950, has been tested over many decades — and it works.

Presidential pardons for service members accused or convicted of war crimes could erode confidence in this well-documented legal process and lead to an atmosphere where battlefield criminal conduct might become more common. The result of this presidential prerogative would not easily be corrected in the near term, and it would be in direct conflict with the military chains of command. Junior ranks across the services could interpret these pardons as a commander in chief’s indifference toward illegal actions, including the reported killings by a SEAL operator of a young Iraqi girl and an unarmed old Iraqi man.

We write from extensive personal experience — over a decade between us in specific and complex combat zone leadership roles. During our time in Falluja, a Marine was ordered to confinement in Anbar Province after a civilian had been killed at nighttime in questionable circumstances. In Helmand, the governor of the province and other provincial religious and tribal leaders would press us on incidents in which United States military operations resulted in civilian deaths. These Iraqis and Afghans wanted to believe the Americans could be trusted to follow up, especially behind closed doors and in courtrooms.

Maintaining our moral standing in war is among the greatest challenges for any service member, particularly for those who see friends die. It is the adherence to law in wartime that defines us as Americans and keeps civilians and our own troops safe.

Presidential pardons for military members accused of war crimes would be a tremendous disservice to these troops who remain our best unofficial ambassadors in outposts around the world. If the current commander in chief pardons service members accused or convicted of war crimes, we risk having our own citizens, and perhaps even our most trusted allies around the world, note the lowering of standards on the explicit order of the American president himself. Governments with questionable records on human rights will undoubtedly, if quietly, applaud the man seated in the Oval Office — let us not forget the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

In emails, Iraqis and Afghans have offered us their own views. Their important voices are too often missing in our public discourse about our wars in their neighborhoods, let alone incorporated into our legal proceedings.

A former high school physics teacher and Iraqi policeman from Falluja recently wrote, “It raises the prospect in the minds of the troops that says, ‘whatever we do, if we can get the folks back home behind us, maybe we can get off.’”

An Afghan law graduate from Kunar Province, now living with his family in Kabul, echoed this theme and warned that pardons “will give strength to insurgents’ propaganda that every American serviceman is a war criminal.”

On this Memorial Day weekend, as we remember and honor the lives and service of our fallen warriors, we should listen to these Iraqis and Afghans; we should insist on justice for the war dead with foreign names buried far from Washington. And for the sake of the armed forces of the United States, the military justice system should be allowed to move forward unimpeded and in keeping with the highest standards of our great nation.

Lawrence D. Nicholson, a retired Marine lieutenant general, served as commanding general of the III Marine Expeditionary Force, Japan, commanding general, First Marine Division, Camp Pendleton, Calif., and commanding general, Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade, in Afghanistan. He was wounded in action in Falluja in 2004. J. Kael Weston, a former State Department official, is the author of “The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan” and teaches at Marine Corps University in Quantico and Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.





Source link

About The Author

Related posts

Leave a Reply