President Trump, military justice and mililtary ethics

In the high-profile case of Navy Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, President Trump has repeatedly intervened in the military justice system. Trump pushed for the Chief’s pretrial release, pardoned the Chief for allegedly committing war crimes, prevented the Navy from demoting him and finally stopped the SEALs from stripping Gallagher of his SEAL pin.

On the one hand, President Trump is the Commander-in-Chief and has unlimited Constitutional authority to issue pardons. In the case of Chief Gallagher, Trump has not in any way violated the law.

On the other hand, President Trump’s actions have three very serious negative consequences. First, his actions directly impugn the integrity and capability of the chain of command. This happens any time that a senior repeatedly interferes with the actions of subordinates. If subordinates are competent and trustworthy, then a senior owes those subordinates appropriate freedom of action and the attendant respect that accompanies that freedom.

Second, President Trump’s actions erode the respect for the rule of law, especially the law of armed conflict and war, that United States’ combatants are to uphold. Having one’s photo taken over a dead enemy that one killed violates that law, but also demeans the enemy and consequently makes peace (if not victory) more elusive. Furthermore, undue or inappropriate influence from seniors destroys subordinates’ confidence in fairness of military justice. Was Chief Gallagher singled out for favorable treatment or are special forces not permitted to operate without regard for the rule of law?

Third, President Trump’s actions undercut the informal authority of military ethics. From an ethical perspective, Chief Gallagher’s actions were reprehensible even if not illegal. President Trump’s actions will prompt some SEALs and other special forces personnel, as well as many recruits and junior military personnel, who are already skeptical of the importance of military ethics to become even more skeptical. Mercy, when appropriate, follows rather than precedes justice.

Ethical behavior is essential for our military to fulfill its duty in upholding the rule of law in general and the Constitution in particular. Key military virtues include:
  • Honesty, telling the truth about what happened regardless of potential consequences
  • Integrity, consistently doing one’s duty
  • Courage, bravely doing the right thing regardless of the danger faced
  • Justice, accountability with fairness for one’s actions
  • Loyalty, to one’s country and to one’s comrades in arms
A military without ethics, especially a military loyal to a commander-in-chief rather than to the rule of law, takes a nation far down the slippery slope toward tyranny. No dictator can rule for long without the support of her/his military. Military ethics is one thin, fragile barrier that preserves our democracy. President Trump should resist the temptation to intervene in future cases; he should allow the military’s uniformed leaders to do their duty, holding their troops accountable, punishing the wrong and rewarding the right.


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