By ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS
The presidential tradition of pardoning a pair of turkeys during the Thanksgiving holiday is a form of nationally accepted dark humor. Legend has it that despite the grand show of mercy for two randomly selected beauties, the president’s table is nonetheless always furnished with a cooked cousin. The dark joke is that despite the pardon, at least one presidential turkey meets a grim demise every Thanksgiving. But what is not so humorous is when the president abuses the pardon power to send a political message that goes against America’s own values and harms national security.
President Donald Trump’s recent action in issuing full pardons to two soldiers and reversing Navy discipline issued to a SEAL commander — despite loud objections from military leadership — constitutes a clear and present danger to American soldiers. Not only do the pardons damage morale by explicitly endorsing prohibited conduct and thereby degrading military discipline, but they also put troops in the war theatre in risk of further harm.
While clemency is a power that should be used in cases in which there is a clear injustice, or where mercy is otherwise earned through good acts on behalf of the convicted, it should not be used to advance a dangerous political idea: the idea that the U.S. military should not hold American soldiers accountable for war crimes. Not only do these violations of international conventions against war crimes — to which the U.S. is a signatory — and of internal ethical rules create a moral hazard; they also create a physical hazard.
Case in point: Abu Ghraib. The infamous Iraqi prison had never been what one might consider a haven for human rights. In fact, under Saddam Hussein, it was a notorious torture chamber that consumed and disappeared thousands of people. But under U.S. command in the aftermath of Operation Enduring Freedom, it was supposed to become a modern facility that complied with America’s obligations under the Geneva human rights conventions.
Unfortunately, it became one of the most enduring symbols of cruelty ever displayed in post-World War II military history. Between October and December 2003, American soldiers inflicted systematic torture of prisoners that were described by the Army’s own internal investigators as “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses.” The abuses included “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape,” and “sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick, and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee,” according to a report written by Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba.
The political fallout from the widely publicized photos of American soldiers smiling over the piled, naked bodies of chained Iraqi prisoners opened a can of hell that would prove almost impossible to close — to this day. The Abu Ghraib abuses unleashed a chain reaction of allegedly retaliatory cruelty against U.S. soldiers (and civilians) in the region — including kidnappings, public beheadings and lynching. The moral justification for America’s involvement in what was supposed to be a war to protect ourselves and the Middle East against a rising threat became tarnished, and support for America’s presence in Iraq plummeted among the Iraqi population — who had initially welcomed the American military to free them from Hussein’s clearly despotic and psychotic regime.
Even more damningly, the U.S. abuses at Abu Ghraib were the result not of bored or poorly trained soldiers going rogue but of a culture of leadership from the highest levels of command that either implicitly endorsed or failed to explicitly forbid this type of behavior. At least six members of leadership, including the Army brigadier general in charge of the prison, were relieved of command and punished.
This was a painful lesson, to say the least. And in the intervening years, the U.S. enforced strict rules of engagement designed to both preserve the lives of U.S. soldiers and adhere to America’s obligations under international war conventions. We gradually reestablished some degree of moral high ground and once again became trusted partners in the region.
But Trump’s recent actions threaten all of that and place Americans at both moral and physical peril. By signaling that illegal actions — such as killing unarmed civilians and military detainees — will be permitted under his administration, Trump not only circumvents the military chain of command but also sets American troops up to be killed and tortured abroad. While the pardon power is the exclusive prerogative of the president and is usually used to promote mercy and justice, it can be abused and weaponized in support of a political ideology that is ultimately harmful to America.
Pardoning turkeys is a presidential tradition rife with dark humor. Pardoning war criminals and human rights abusers is also dark but lacks the requisite levity. In fact, it is anything but a laughing matter.