In early 2003, as a cavalry officer, I stood in front of my scout platoon at dusk after a long day preparing to deploy to Iraq. I spoke with them about the law of war and how they should treat civilians when we got into theater. It wasn’t a long conversation, but I felt that giving clear guidance about what was acceptable — and not acceptable — was important. They should treat the civilians as they would neighbors, I told them. Soldiers take most seriously the things their leadership makes most serious.
On Monday, President Trump pardoned the convicted war criminal Michael Behenna, who had murdered Ali Mansur, an unarmed, naked Iraqi, by shooting him in the head and chest. Making a specious claim of self-defense, Behenna argued that Mansur threw a piece of concrete at him and “ stood up like he’s coming at me.” And so he neutralized this threat, a naked man, already released by the Army. Behenna was supposed to be returning Mansur home to his village. A military court convicted Behenna of unpremeditated murder. American soldiers testified against him. The military court of appeals and a review panel upheld that conviction, though he was paroled early, in 2014.
Even before pardoning Behenna, Trump demonstrated a disturbing flippancy toward war crimes. He has repeatedly expressed support for former Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, another alleged war criminal. Gallagher’s own men told investigators that he had, according to the New York Times, “shot a girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with other girls on the riverbank.