War Crime Pardons Are the Great Moral Stain of America

Article by Matt Gallagher

This was the culmination of a series of episodes involving Gallagher and excessive force — some in his platoon later testified to messing with the scope of his rifle so he’d stop shooting innocents. Regardless, Gallagher and others then posed with the dead body of the teen fighter for a trophy photograph. After another SEAL changed his testimony deep in the trial, claiming that he had been the one who’d actually killed the ISIS teen, Gallagher was found not guilty of premeditated murder and attempted murder. (The other SEAL had, of course, already been granted immunity by the prosecution. The code runs deep in the spec ops community.) Gallagher was convicted of posing with the body (hard to walk back that evidence) and initially stripped of his SEAL trident — until President Trump ordered it returned, over the objections of his own Navy Secretary, Richard Spencer, who resigned in protest.

Major Golsteyn: As a Green Beret in Afghanistan during a 2010 deployment, Golsteyn allegedly helped cover up the execution of an alleged Taliban bomb maker and/or executed the bomb maker himself after a direct engagement.

He and others then returned to the village that night to dig up and burn the bomb maker’s body. The story only surfaced later, after Golsteyn mentioned it in a polygraph administered by the CIA during a job interview. Though Golsteyn would make different claims about what happened to the bomb maker and how, he was investigated twice and eventually charged with premeditated murder. His trial had been scheduled for December 2019.

It bears repeating: These were not quick decisions made in the fog of war. Every single one occurred in a space where these soldiers could have thought through what was happening and how to react.

We’re 19 years into these everlong wars. A vast, vast majority of American servicemembers who’ve gone abroad to fight them have held the line in near-impossible situations. There’s absolutely been cases where confusion has led to tragedy. There’s absolutely been cases where soldiers were forced to choose between a bad choice and a worse choice, and it’s led to collateral damage and dead and wounded soldiers. There’s absolutely been a whole lot of moral and ethical dilemmas that offer much in the way of complexity, and little in the way of clarity. Such is war. These sorts of wars, especially.

These aren’t that, though.

These pardons do a disservice to everyone who held that line, or attempted to. They impugn every soldier and Marine who exhibited courageous restraint in moments of great confusion and hazard, often to their own detriment, because that’s what duty meant in the moment.

And now these three pardoned war criminals — Lorance, in particular — are public figures. They’ve campaigned for President Trump at fundraisers. They go on Fox News and hold court like they’re modern-day Spartan soldiers or something. It’s a fucking disgrace. And it’s not over. That advocacy group United American Patriots is now making noise about seeking a pardon for Robert Bales, the staff sergeant who straight-up slaughtered a family of Afghan civilians in cold blood in 2012.

I know we live in the upside-down these days, but this is too much. Yes, they’re hard, yes, they’re often confusing, but the rules of engagement matter. Escalation of force matters. It’s what separates us from the enemy. It’s what separates us from barbarism. They’re part of what makes the American servicemember special.

Or used to, at least.

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