Trump and the problem with pardons

As a veteran, I was astonished by the recent news that President Trump may be considering pardons for U.S. military members accused or convicted of war crimes. But as a scholar who studies the U.S. military and combat ethics, I understand even more clearly the harmful long-term impact such pardons can have on the military.

My research, along with my military experience, shows that these pardons can potentially corrode the U.S. military’s culture of ethics and respect for the law of war, with effects lasting for decades.

Brotherhood and war crimes

During my military career, I saw up close U.S. service members’ powerful sense of brotherhood and duty.

Despite this, many war crimes prosecutions of U.S. service members in Iraq and Afghanistan started with reports from fellow soldiers. Similarly, despite the strong bonds within the SEAL community, U.S. Navy SEALs reported the alleged atrocities of their platoon chief, Edward Gallagher – one of the service members Trump is considering pardoning.

In such cases, U.S. service members have often been motivated by a belief that reporting such violations is important for both the integrity and mission of U.S. military.

Their sense of duty was more important than even the bonds of brotherhood. This fact is what makes the President’s consideration of pardons so shocking.

A checkered past

It took years for the military to learn that hurting civilians harms both the mission and the sense of duty and honor within U.S. military culture.

During the Vietnam War, many U.S. troops viewed the Vietnamese civilians as supporters of the enemy, leading to massive atrocities, including the infamous massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai.

U.S. Army commanders learned the hard way that these atrocities contributed to greater indiscipline and a loss of professionalism within the U.S. military. It took the military a generation to recover.

Because of this, the U.S. military drastically shifted focus after Vietnam, creating, among other initiatives, the Department of Defense Law of War program to transform U.S. military culture.

The program emphasized ethics and compliance with the law of war in training and compliance with the Geneva Conventions in enforcement of military rules and laws.