President Donald Trump is reportedly considering granting pardons for several military members who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, including some who have not yet gone to trial. The pardons may be issued this Memorial Day. OPINION by U.S. Army Veteran William Stuebner.
On May 27th America celebrates its 151st Memorial Day, and it looks like President Donald Trump is going to dishonor us all. Make no mistake about it, the bottom line of every soldier’s job is either to kill or support those who pull the trigger in service to their country.
Killing is not something most service men and women relish, and the need to take a life is usually the result of the failure of civilian authorities to find non-lethal solutions to the world’s problems. This is true for every infantryman, but also every clerk, every mechanic, every intelligence professional.
While a good soldier may, of necessity, be a good killer, good soldiers are not murderers. They follow legal and moral orders, and do what they must. Once they step over the line into premeditated crimes like torture, the murder of innocents, and persons who are hors de combat, they no longer deserve our respect and should be treated like any other criminal.
All that said, the fog of war is real. Many of us have made honest mistakes that result in unjustified injury and death, especially in conflicts where it is difficult to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. In the heat of battle, with the heady mix of adrenaline, excitement, and fear, one can do things that only in retrospect are understood to be wrong.
A good soldier who holds a wounded child in his or her arms and watches the light slowly go out in their eyes or hears their cries for Mommy lives with that moment forever. This is the cost of professionalism and service. It is also why the decision of our presidents to employ deadly force should never be taken before every other reasonable option is tried.
We all understand our roles as military professionals.
While a good soldier may, of necessity, be a good killer, good soldiers are not murderers.
None of these words is unfamiliar. Every one of us knows the standards we are expected to uphold. Most of the time, we obey the rules even under the most horrific conditions. This is something that makes the American military, usually, stand out. It differentiates us from many of our opponents.
So why discuss these things now?
President Trump talks openly of killing terrorists’ families and makes light of torture techniques like waterboarding, even declaring that he plans to do much worse. He is not the first politician to say things like this. It is typical of civilian officials who, when their time to stand up came, were too selfish or cowardly to serve.
Some, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, wrap themselves in the flag and suddenly become the greatest patriots of all time. Another good example is National Security Advisor John Bolton; the man who never saw a war he didn’t like but who, of course, never saw any war up close and personal.
Now President Trump, playing to his “patriotic” base, is considering pardoning military members who have been rightfully convicted by duly-constituted courts-martial of what amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity (although we Americans almost never use those terms when prosecuting one of our own.) More disturbingly, he is reportedly requesting the records of those convicted and currently being prosecuted so that he can announce a whole batch of pardons on Memorial Day, thereby dishonoring the just service of all the American heroes we celebrate on that day.
My Father, the old paratrooper who we proudly laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery, would be outraged. Wounded fighting against the Japanese and later participating in the airborne crossing of the Rhine, he once disarmed and arrested two new replacements for shooting two German men in civilian clothes who were running away from a house they were clearing.
No question. No bullshit. No excuses.
War crimes and crimes against humanity are not only illegal and immoral, they are counterproductive. The massacre of American prisoners of war by SS Kampfgruppe Peiper at Malmedy can be credited with stiffening American resistance and defeating the German Ardennes offensive. Years of murder and torture by some Salvadoran Army units only increased the resolve of guerrillas and their civilian supporters. If you knew you would be abused and probably killed upon capture, why would you surrender?
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the massacres, rapes and death camps in the summer of 1992, ensured that people would resist what appeared likely to be a quick victory by better-armed and organized Serb forces. Finally, the brutal tactics of ISIS in Syria and Iraq turned the populations and, ultimately, the whole world against them and led to their territorial defeat in the region.
This Memorial Day veterans who served our nation with honor should stand up to protest the President’s cynical use of pardons to serve his own political interests. We all know our chains of command are not prone to railroading combat veterans with false charges and fabricated evidence. If anything, they lean over backwards to avoid prosecution.
We all want to believe our brothers and sisters in arms would not blemish our reputation with wanton cruelty and disregard of the laws of war. But these things do happen, and once they cross the line, those rightfully judged to be guilty are no longer part of our professional military fraternity regardless of any previous honorable service.
Civilian authorities who encourage such crimes are not worthy of our respect.
William Stuebner, for LIMA CHARLIE WORLD
William Stuebner served in the United States Army for twenty years, first in the Infantry and then as a military intelligence officer. The last five years of his career revolved around the wars in Central America where he first led a special intelligence team and then worked as the El Salvador desk officer for the Department of Defense. He was also an assistant professor in the Social Sciences Department of the United States Military Academy where he taught politics and political philosophy.
Stuebner’s Balkans work began in May 1992, shortly after the commencement of hostilities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and continues to this day. His assignments included: Humanitarian Assistance Officer for the Department of Defense; Bosnian Field Representative for the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, United States Agency for International Development; Expert on Mission, Office of the Prosecutor, International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (twice); Senior Deputy Head of Mission for Human Rights and Chief of Staff, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has also headed two Non-Governmental Organizations dealing with international criminal justice and peace building.
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