Iraq Combat Veteran: Pardon of War Criminals Sends Disturbing Message to U.S. Military

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President Trump is considering pardoning American military members convicted of war crimes. One of the requests for a pardon is reportedly for Navy SEALs Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who is facing charges of shooting unarmed civilians and killing a wounded captive teenage fighter by stabbing him with a knife and then staging a re-enlistment ceremony over the dead teen’s body. On Thursday, a military judge in San Diego ordered Gallagher free from custody, citing prosecutorial misconduct in his murder trial for war crimes. The court has yet to rule on whether to remove prosecutors or to throw out the case entirely. One of the attorneys for Gallagher also represents the Trump Organization. Republican Congressmember Duncan Hunter, one of Gallagher’s most vocal supporters, recently admitted in a podcast to killing hundreds of civilians while serving in the U.S. military during his deployment to Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. This comes as Trump may also consider a pardon request for Blackwater contractor Nicholas Slatten, who was twice found guilty of first-degree murder in the deadly 2007 Nisoor Square massacre in Baghdad, which killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians. We speak with Waitman Wade Beorn, a combat veteran of Iraq and a Holocaust and genocide studies historian. In a May 9, 2019, opinion column in The Washington Post, headlined “”I led a platoon in Iraq. Trump is wrong to pardon war criminals.”

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We end today’s show looking at President Trump’s consideration of presidential pardons for American military members convicted of war crimes.

One of the requests for a pardon is reportedly for Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, facing charges of shooting unarmed civilians and killing a wounded captive teenager by stabbing him with a knife, then staging a re-enlistment ceremony over the dead teenager’s body. On Thursday, a military judge in San Diego ordered Gallagher freed from custody, citing prosecutorial misconduct in his murder trial for war crimes. The judge ruled prosecutors exceeded their authority when they tried to plant computer code in emails in order to find the source of leaks about the case. On Friday, the judge said prosecutors violated Gallagher’s right to a fair trial. The court has yet to rule on whether to remove prosecutors or to throw out the case entirely.

One of the attorneys for Gallagher also represents the Trump Organization. One of Gallagher’s most vocal supporters in Congress has been Republican Congressmember Duncan Hunter of California. This is Hunter speaking on the podcast Zero Blog Thirty in audio released last week, in which he admits to killing hundreds of innocent people while serving in the U.S. military during the Iraq War, during his deployment to Fallujah in 2004.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: Well, then, how do you judge me? So, I was an artillery officer, and we fired hundreds of rounds into Fallujah—

KATE MANNION: Right.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: —killed probably hundreds of civilians, if not scores, if not hundreds of civilians, probably killed women and children, if there were any left in the city when we invaded. So, do I get judged, too?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s California Republican Congressmember Duncan Hunter. This comes as Trump may also be considering a pardon request for Blackwater contractor Nicholas Slatten, who was found guilty twice of first-degree murder in the deadly 2007 Nisoor Square massacre in Baghdad, which killed 14 unarmed Iraqi civilians. He was sentenced to life in prison last December.

Well, for more, we’re joined from Charlottesville, Virginia, by Waitman Wade Beorn, a combat veteran of Iraq and a Holocaust and genocide studies historian. He’s a lecturer at the University of Virginia, author of Marching into Darkness: The Wehrmacht and the Holocaust in Belarus. He’s a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Beorn has just written an op-ed piece for The Washington Post which is headlined “I led a platoon in Iraq. Trump is wrong to pardon war criminals.” In it, he writes, quote, “When Trump champions war criminals as brave patriots who are simply victims of political correctness, he seems to push for a climate that condones unethical and criminal behavior. He appears to write off war crimes as the cost of doing business. If this is the example our military is given, we should not be surprised to see more … Gallaghers.”

Waitman Wade Beorn, welcome to Democracy Now!

WAITMAN WADE BEORN: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the people who President Trump is talking about pardoning. Let’s begin with Edward Gallagher and your concerns about the president of the United States pardoning him.

WAITMAN WADE BEORN: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a lot of issues with Gallagher. And I first want to just start by mentioning one thing about what you mentioned at the beginning of the show regarding his—the judgment by the judge for prosecutorial misconduct. What we’re really talking about here is an amazing job by the defense team, but it’s read receipts on emails. And that’s what his defense team has spun into planting code. It’s a read receipt to let the prosecution team know that somebody has read an email. So, you know, that’s a really flimsy excuse for letting him out.

But to get back to your original question, you know, the president has chosen really the worst possible options of anyone to pardon, and Gallagher probably being one of the most egregious. Among the things that he is accused of are shooting a child; shooting an old man; murdering a 15-year-old noncombatant—who was a combatant but then, as a wounded prisoner of war, is now a noncombatant—with a knife, stabbing him to death, texting his friends about this stabbing, holding a re-enlistment ceremony over the body of this individual. Any one of these things is an egregious breach of the law of armed conflict and the law of war and just a complete moral and ethical failure. And I really don’t—I don’t see any reason why any pardon is justified.

And I should conclude those initial statements with the fact that this has not even gone to trial yet. So, in a sense, what we have is the president not only appearing to condone such activities or oppose prosecution based on his concept of patriotism, etc., but also demonstrating a clear lack of confidence in our military justice system, not even letting them have the opportunity to do their job, which is to investigate and prosecute people accused of war crimes. So, it’s disturbing on many, many levels, at least to me and a lot of other folks.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back to one of Eddie Gallagher’s most vocal supporters in Congress, Republican Congressmember Duncan Hunter of California, speaking on the podcast Zero Blog Thirty. He was asked specifically about Gallagher allegedly stabbing to death this teenager, a teenage ISIS fighter who was brought in for medical treatment. He was a POW, as you pointed out. Let’s go to Duncan Hunter’s response.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: I frankly don’t care if he was killed. I just don’t care. And that’s my personal point of view. And as a congressman, that’s my prerogative to help a guy out like that. If—even if everything that the prosecutors say is true in this case, then, you know, Eddie Gallagher should still be given a break, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: In February, Congressman Hunter spoke about Gallagher’s prosecution during an interview on KUSI in San Diego.

REP. DUNCAN HUNTER: You have lawyers, that don’t know what the word “combat” means, prosecuting guys for killing the enemy. So, even if everything that the prosecution said is true—so let’s say that Chief Gallagher killed a verified designated ISIS combatant—my answer is “So what? That’s his job, to close with and destroy the enemy through fire and close combat.” That’s what our military does. We would not have won World War I, we would not have won World War II, if we would have fought the way that we have to fight now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the California Congressman Duncan Hunter, who, by the way, is headed for trial himself, not for what he says he did in Iraq, killing hundreds of civilians, but for corruption. He and his wife have been charged. Waitman Wade Beorn, you’re combat veteran of Iraq. Can you respond to what he said, and he thinking that this is a defense, for not only himself, but for Edward Gallagher?

WAITMAN WADE BEORN: Yeah. I mean, it’s incredibly shocking to hear him say something like that. It crosses a lot of boundaries for me, not least of which is just the complete lack of empathy that one shows when he says, “I don’t care whether this person was killed.” Even if the prosecution is correct, which means that it was a cold-blooded murder by knife, he still doesn’t care. That, to me, is galling. It’s offensive.

He’s flat-out wrong about how—historically wrong about how we fought World War I, World War II. We did not conduct ourselves in the manner in which he claims. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about there. And also, this idea that he seems to be portraying, first when he was—when he admitted that he took selfies with a dead body, and this idea that, well, we all did that in Iraq, no, we did not all do that in Iraq. The overwhelming majority of us did not do that and recognized that as criminal and wrong.

And this idea of just, you know, once we enter into a war, our job is to go kill anything that moves, to win the war, is just—it’s blatantly false. And it demonstrates a real disturbing lack of understanding of how to deal with civilians and noncombatants on the battlefield. From someone who was in a position of authority, leading our soldiers—in this case, marines—overseas, it’s just—it’s deplorable.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s very interesting is that it was his fellow SEALs that turned him in. And can you talk about this and who took them seriously and who ignored them?

WAITMAN WADE BEORN: Yeah. So, in the case of Gallagher, it certainly was his own SEALs who turned him in, to the extent that, according to some of them, while they were in country, they manipulated his weapon so that it wouldn’t be as accurate, because they were just concerned that he continued to shoot at noncombatants. Gallagher’s defense team argues that these are disgruntled individuals who didn’t like Gallagher personally, didn’t think he should be promoted, didn’t think he should get an award.

And what we’re overlooking here is that these are some of our best-trained, most committed, most dedicated special operators. They are not the kind of people who have their feathers ruffled easily. And so, if they are disturbed about what someone is doing, to the extent that they are willing to repeatedly risk their careers, as they’re being told directly by both Gallagher and others to drop this and let it go, and they do not—I mean, in my sense, in my view, they’re heroes for what they’re doing—at the risk of their careers, I think we need to take that very seriously.

And, by the way, I should note that bringing up these charges because you think that Gallagher is incompetent, should not be training SEALs, should not be promoted, should not get an award, is not incompatible with the justification being that he has committed these war crimes that you have witnessed when you’ve been deployed with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Waitman Wade Beorn, you wrote in your Washington Post piece, “In my book 'Marching Into Darkness,' I wrote about the German army’s participation in the Holocaust at the small-unit level. One conclusion was that, even given the premeditated, racist and highly ideologized environment of the Wehrmacht, the culture of each unit and the institutional leadership most directly influenced whether war crimes were committed. Murderous leaders led murderous units.” Explain that further and then talk about President Trump talking about Edward Gallagher as a war hero.

WAITMAN WADE BEORN: Absolutely. And, I mean, as I pointed out in the article, and as you read there, you know, obviously, I’m not comparing our military or claiming that our military were Nazis, are Nazis. There’s many, many things that are different. However, there are certain truisms, I think, in all military units, probably from the Romans, in terms of individual dynamics within units and how people interact, how leaders interact.

And the point that I’m making there is that leaders set the standards for behavior. Subordinates—soldiers, sailors and marines—they know what the boss cares about. They know what his or her pet peeves happen to be. They know what his or her values happen to be. And they will usually adhere to those. And when, as is hopefully mostly the case, those are positive values, positive morals, then they will act accordingly. However, when we have guidance, from either the presidential level all the way down to the platoon leader level, that is counter to our morals or is dysfunctional, then they will often be encouraged to do the same thing.

We said in the Army that leaders make policy by everything that they do and everything that they allow to happen or fail to correct. So, moving it a little further to what the president appears to be doing, you know, by minimizing, by underwriting the crimes of people like Gallagher, people like Behenna, people like Hunter, in this case, as well, he is sending a message that these kinds of behaviors are acceptable, as you mentioned earlier in the show, that war is hell, some eggs are going to get broken, civilians are going to get killed, not a big deal, this is how we fight war—which is absolutely antithetical to how we do things.

AMY GOODMAN: And then you have Nick Slatten, who was convicted twice of first-degree murder for the Nisoor Square massacre, President Trump talking about pardoning him. He worked for Blackwater.

WAITMAN WADE BEORN: Yeah. I mean, and I’m not as familiar with the details of that case, except to say that, again, you know, we have a system to prosecute individuals who commit war crimes. And particularly in this case, given that we have a more complicated situation with a civilian working for the military but not under Uniform Code of Military Justice, the fact that that conviction has gone through the process that we have set up twice and has been upheld, you know, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for a pardon. You know, usually a pardon, if done in the best of intentions, is to correct a wrong, whether it’s a racist conviction or something to that effect. And in this case, there isn’t a wrong to be corrected there.

AMY GOODMAN: Waitman, I wanted to ask you one question very quickly before we get to the end, and that is the Virginia Beach mass shooter. This is on pretty much a different issue. DeWayne Craddock was enlisted in the Virginia National Guard for years. Other mass shooters with a military or law enforcement background included David Long, marine, Afghanistan War vet; Nikolas Cruz, high school Army ROTC; and a number of others who were involved with mass shootings. This relationship between serving in the military and mass killings, your thoughts?

WAITMAN WADE BEORN: Well, I think it’s, frankly, disingenuous to really associate those. You know, a lot of times the news will say something to the effect of—

AMY GOODMAN: I hate to end it here, but we’re going to have to. I want to thank you for being with us.

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