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Goodbye Law and Morality, Welcome Pretend Tough!

Who needs law, discipline, and morality? These standards mean nothing for a pay-your-doctor-for-an-excuse draft dodger who pretends he is strong and likes tough guys. We have known for years Donald Trump believes that his fame permits him to grab any pussy and do whatever  he wants. Now he boasts that he has liberated a Navy SEAL accused of stabbing to death an Arab teenager already under sedation because of previous injury.  The boy was so skinny that his watch slid easily off his wrist. In no way ashamed of his feat, Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher than posed for a triumphal  photo holding his dead victim by the hair. Encouraged by Fox News, the president brags for his base that he has upended the military code of justice to protect the petty officer from punishment. Presumably the two-in-five American voters who support the president are equally indifferent to law, discipline, and basic morality.  They may go to church on Sunday but who knows what they do they rest of the week?

In early 2019 Gallagher was formally charged with more than a dozen criminal acts, including premeditated murder, which occurred during his eighth deployment overseas. He was tried in a military court and acquitted in July of all charges, except one count of wrongfully posing for photographs with the body of a dead Islamic State fighter. The jury sentenced him to four months, the maximum possible. Because he had served that amount of time waiting for trial, he was released. Despite this extremely modest punishment, President Trump intervened to make sure that Gallagher was not demoted when he retired and that he could keep his Trident medal, a SEAL badge of honor.

The highest ranks in the Navy insisted that Gallagher be held responsible for his action, seen by professionals as a war crime, but Trump commanded his Secretary of Defense to have the  Secretary of the Navy fired for resisting the present’s interventions.  As the lead article in The New York Times put it on December 1, “the case pits a Pentagon hierarchy committed to enforcing long-standing rules of combat against a commander in chief with no military experience but [with] a finely honed sense of grievance against authority.”

Even as he claims to back a strong military establishment,  Trump distrust the generals and admirals who run it. At the Times puts it, “rather than accept information from his own government, he responds to television reports that grab his interest….He bulldozes past precedent and norms.” He sees the top military brass as part of the “deep state” opposing him, along with the intelligence community, law enforcement agencies, and diplomatic corps.  Pentagon officials as well as their civilian colleagues say that Trump’s intervention in the Gallagher case “emboldens war criminals and erodes the order of a professional military.” If today’s American president were asked to evaluate the Nazi Jew killer Adolf Eichmann, he would probably praise him for duly “following orders” and ignoring global standards of  political correctness.

Before his most recent deployment, Gallagher asked a friend to make him a custom hunting  knife and hatchet,  vowing in a text “I will try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull.” This was the same knife used against the sedated Iraqi teenager wearing a tank top. On previous deployments Gallagher is said to have shot an Iraqi schoolgirl in a flower-print hijab and a man carrying a water jug. He was also accused in 2010 of shooting through an Afghan girl to hit the man carrying her and, in 2014, of trying to run over a Navy police officer.  One SEAL told investigators he tried to damage the chief’s sniper rifle to make it less accurate. These and similar incidents were either not reported or, if reported, elicited no charges.

The present commentary does not take a stand on whether U.S. troops should be engaged in combat against Afghans, Arabs, or Persians in today’s Middle East. To view Gallagher as a cruel sadist does not ignore that Gallagher, like many other U.S. soldiers and sailors, has served in multiple  combat deployments.  His life experiences could  harden anyone just to survive. But surely the military court that judged Gallagher was quite attuned to such realities and willing to make some allowance for them.

After being fired, former Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer on November 27 in the Washington Post called the president’s actions “a shocking and unprecedented intervention” and “a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.” Spence wrote that “ethical conduct is what sets our military apart. I have believed that every day since joining the Marine Corps in 1976.”

Retired Army Brigadier General Anthony J. Tata disagreed with every facet of the foregoing analysis. Writing in the Washington Post on December 1, Tata stated that “the president was right to intervene to prevent a biased, small-minded person like Spencer from spitefully tilting the weight of the bureaucracy on top of a single sailor. Servicemen and women enjoy the same due process rights as the civilians of the country they serve.” Tata predicted that Spencer and his hashtags would soon fade while “the president’s support of warfighters over bureaucrats will increase the morale of those in the rank and file. The critics will angrily accuse the president of supporting a war criminal, but the real crimes in this case have been papered over by a secretary of the Navy eager to avoid embarrassment at the expense of a sailor who, on the whole, served honorably.”

Whether or not Gallagher might serve some sympathy for his actions, what excuse could anyone make for Trump? He has overruled the very military professionals pledged to serve the country and him.  The rules of war they support aim to protect civilians and military of every country, whether foe or friend or neither.  Ultimately, Trump’s behavior contributes to heightened dangers for U.S. service men and women. Looking at the big picture, we can see that the president degrades law and morality in the United States and beyond.

Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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