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OPINION

Same old song if Trump pardons SEAL

By CHARLES LANE | The Washington Post | Published: May 21, 2019

If indeed President Donald Trump pardons one or more U.S. military men accused or convicted of war crimes in Afghanistan or Iraq, it could be his most Nixonian moment yet.

On March 29, 1971, a U.S. Army court-martial at Fort Benning, Ga., convicted Lt. William Calley of 22 murders for his part in the massacre of as many as 500 men, women and children by a company of U.S. soldiers in My Lai, Vietnam. The tribunal sentenced him to life in prison.

President Richard Nixon did not see this as an opportunity to drive home the point that U.S. soldiers must follow the laws of war and that deviations are not only morally wrong but counterproductive militarily. Rather, Nixon decided to exploit a groundswell of sympathy for Calley. In 1971, millions of Americans vilified Calley as typical of a corrupt and violent policy; yet millions more saw him as a dedicated soldier being scapegoated for the failed policies of others.

A song called “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” sold more than 200,000 records in the three days after the court-martial ended. “My name is William Calley, I’m a soldier of this land,” the lyrics went. “I’ve tried to do my duty and to gain the upper hand/ But they’ve made me out a villain; they have stamped me with a brand.”

Within days of Calley’s conviction, Nixon exercised his authority to have him removed from prison and placed in comfortable house arrest pending an appeal, the first step in a process that would ultimately see Calley, the only American convicted for the atrocities in My Lai, set free after three years.

Now, as in Nixon’s era, executive clemency may undercut the results of legal process — but resonate on the populist right. Trump is in touch with the same distrust of elite authority that Nixon was, and he taps the same vein of sympathy for men sent to fight a dirty guerrilla war in which, as “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley” put it, “It’s hard to judge the enemy and hard to tell the good.”

Where Trump may break new ground, according to a recent New York Times report, would be by weighing a pardon for one Navy SEAL accused of murder — before he even stands trial.

Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher faces a May 28 court-martial on criminal counts that include premeditated murder for allegedly stabbing to death a suspected Islamic State fighter whom Iraqi forces had brought for medical care to Gallagher’s SEAL team platoon in Mosul in May 2017. Gallagher, a 19-year veteran of multiple combat tours, also stands accused of firing at civilians indiscriminately, and, in one alleged instance, shot a girl walking along a riverbank.

Gallagher denies the charges and, with the support of more than three dozen Republican members of Congress, began demanding less restrictive pretrial confinement almost as soon as he was arrested last September. Trump granted that demand in March.

The campaign on Gallagher’s behalf is smaller in scale than the one waged by Calley’s supporters long ago, but similar in spirit. His leading defender, Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., has said that the military justice system is “rigged” and that Gallagher deserves presidential intervention if convicted.

Gallagher’s lawyers argue that his accusers — fellow Navy SEALs — are motivated by resentment at his demanding leadership style.

Navy prosecutors argue that, to the contrary, Gallagher’s accusers showed “the courage and integrity to come forward and report” his wrongdoing, as Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak said in a pretrial hearing last November.

This assertion gains plausibility from the fact that the SEALs are a famously self-protective elite force not given to challenging one another’s wartime conduct lightly, though of course Gallagher is entitled to a presumption of innocence and the right to challenge testimony against him.

Perhaps, though, the SEALs’ willingness to blow the whistle reflected the U.S. military’s embrace, since My Lai, of the standard set by Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot who was at the village on March 16, 1968, saw what was happening and intervened to save a group of civilian Vietnamese, ordering his crew to fire on U.S. troops if necessary to stop the slaughter.

In 1998, the Army held a special ceremony to present Thompson the Soldier’s Medal — an award for heroism not involving conflict with an enemy. This belated recognition of a man who was, in 1968, ostracized for his stand, fit into the armed forces’ broader effort to reinforce ethical and humanitarian standards. Thompson even spoke at West Point and other military installations.

Hugh Thompson’s legacy, in short, was taking hold; but now the commander in chief himself may be about to repudiate it.

Washington Post editorial writer/columnist Charles Lane specializes in economic and fiscal policy.

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