George Boardman: Commander-in-chief undermines the leadership of America’s military forces
A president who went to great lengths to avoid serving his country during the Vietnam War has signaled it is now OK for members of one of the few institutions still admired by the American public to emulate the barbaric tactics of ISIS fanatics.
In doing so, Donald Trump has ignored the advice of the best and brightest of our military leaders to embrace a crude political calculation that pardoning three men accused or convicted of military crimes will play well with his political base.
In one sense, this is really not a surprise because Trump has consistently shown his disdain for members of the military while basking in the reflected glow of their heroic work. It started during his campaign for president, when he labeled John McCain a loser because he was held prisoner and tortured by North Vietnam for 5 1/2 years.
After he became commander-in-chief, Trump routinely ignored the advice of his generals and admirals, claiming nobody knew more about our military situation than he did. When he ordered an immediate withdrawal from Syria, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, a 4-star Marine general, resigned in protest. Trump’s “Generals’ General” then became a “third-rate general.”
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When John Kelly, another 4-star general, became Trump’s second chief of staff, observers anticipated he would be the one adult in the room. He lasted two years before leaving, unwilling to become another one of Trump’s “yes” men.
Now the secretary of the Navy has been fired because he objected to Trump overriding military authority by canceling a Navy review that could have led to Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher being ejected from the elite SEAL unit. Trump had already ordered that Gallagher’s rank and pay be restored after he was busted for posing for a picture with the body of a dead combatant.
Trump also pardoned Army Major Mathew L. Golsteyn, who faced a murder trial next year in the death of a suspected Taliban bomb maker, and Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was convicted in 2013 of two counts of second-degree murder after ordering his soldiers to open fire on unarmed men in Afghanistan.
Trump’s intervention in the cases prompted a sharp backlash from some veterans and legal experts, who said it will undermine the military justice system and weaken U.S. credibility abroad. In the case of the Navy SEAL, Trump’s action called into question an attempt by the head of the elite unit to restore discipline after a series of criminal incidents.
The unilateral decisions reflect Trump’s tendency to ignore the advice of veteran leaders while listening to people outside his administration. In this case, a key player appears to be Pete Hegseth, a Fox News commentator who took up the cause of the three men, portraying them as heroes facing malicious prosecution.
Trump called Hegseth several times to discuss the issue and told others about the conversation, according to the Washington Post. United American Patriots, a nonprofit that advocates for service members charged with war crimes, also sent files to the White House, according to David Gurfein, the group’s chief executive.
“At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a ‘U.S. Military hero,’ Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder,” Trump tweeted. “He could face the death penalty from our government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker overseas.”
Senior defense officials learned that Trump was going to pardon the three men after Hegseth announced on Fox that he expected Trump to intervene in the cases. That prompted Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy to try to talk the president out of issuing the pardons.
During the meeting, Trump repeated the points Hegseth was making, the Post reported, and the defense officials tried to correct what they saw as misinformation. But the president had apparently made up his mind without consulting anybody in the Pentagon.
The case of Gallagher in particular has become a cause célèbre among Trump’s conservative base, which has rallied behind him as a war hero. He was cleared of allegations that he stabbed to death an Islamic State fighter while deployed to northern Iraq in 2017, indiscriminately shot at civilians, and threatened fellow SEALs if they reported his actions.
Gallagher was convicted of a single count of posing in a photograph with the body of a dead fighter. He was reduced in rank and lost pay, an action Trump overturned. When the Navy tried to remove him from the SEALs, Trump made it clear that wasn’t going to happen either.
Military leaders are concerned that Trump’s actions will erode the ability of commanders to hold their troops accountable for following orders — such as orders not to execute detainees in U.S. custody. It will also discourage personnel from coming forward with reports of misconduct they see on the battle field.
“People want to hold these guys accountable,” a Navy officer told the New York Times. “But they are afraid that if they do anything, minutes later there will be a tweet from the White House, and the officer in charge will get axed.”
Trump’s action in the Gallagher case comes as Rear Adm. Colin Green, head of the SEALs, has initiated a program to come down hard on misconduct, making a public admission that the SEALs have an “ethics problem.”
In a four-page memo to leaders under his command, Green wrote that the SEALs have drifted from their values of honor, courage and commitment “due to a lack of action at all levels of Leadership,” which has eroded the trust the SEALs have earned. “All hands will address the issue with urgent, effective and active leadership,” Green wrote. “This drift ends now.”
Better clear that with the commander-in-chief, admiral.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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