About a week before Memorial Day, reports started circulating that Trump had ordered officials to quickly draw up paperwork for him to pardon a number of U.S. military personnel either convicted of, or standing trial for, war crimes. Rather than engaging in a drawn-out process, Trump apparently wanted to issue such pardons on Memorial Day as a twisted, sick gift to the troops.
However, facing a barrage of criticism, not least from the military top brass, he pulled back, ruefully acknowledging that the pardons were rather controversial. At this point, they have not yet been signed. In all likelihood, though, like so many other god-awful ideas floated by this administration, the pardons will, quite soon, be resurrected and dangled as red meat before the MAGA crowd.
It’s hard for me to understand what sort of a Memorial Day gift Trump thought this would be, other than to send a message to the most violent, sadistic elements in his constituency, telling them that under his leadership literally anything goes; that the U.S. is unbound; and that acts of random, extreme violence against civilians, especially in Muslim-majority countries in which the U.S. has entanglements, are henceforward to be glorified as acts of patriotic heroism.
Trump has, time and again, called the handful of American soldiers convicted by military courts of war crimes “heroes.” These include Navy SEAL Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, who is standing trial for thrill-killing civilians in Iraq; Nicholas Slatten, a Blackwater contractor found guilty in 2007 of killing numerous Iraqi civilians; Green Beret Mathew Golsteyn, who stands accused of killing an unarmed Afghan man; and several Marine Corps snipers accused of urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters.
The reality-show president apparently calculates that, in the eyes of his base, such macho posturing makes him look strong rather than simply cruel.
In contrast to the British government, which has averred that the legal process needs to play out regarding the recent indictment of a soldier involved in the Bloody Sunday killings of civilians in Ireland during “the troubles” in 1972, the U.S. commander-in-chief has tweeted about ongoing cases and made clear his fury over the fact that American military personnel could be held to account — even by U.S. military courts. And Trump, being the Fox News devotee that he is, has parroted the position of ultra-conservative talk radio and TV pundits that men such as Gallagher are heroic victims rather than perpetrators. With such statements, he has, repeatedly, put his thumb on the scales of justice.
Trump’s glorification of violence and knee-jerk defense of people such as Gallagher are part of a much bigger pattern. Over the past four years Trump has stated that he believes American soldiers ought to be able to torture terrorism suspects, kill the families of terrorists and use such methods as dipping bullets in pigs’ blood before firing them at Muslim fighters as a way of humiliating them. In other words, Trump has repeatedly advocated the carrying out of war crimes by American military personnel. So, why not seal the deal and pardon those who have taken his rantings literally?
The pardon preparations have sent shock waves through the U.S. military leadership. They have also shaken international aid organizations whose personnel routinely go into war zones to treat the injured, mediate for imprisoned people, and monitor to ensure that torture, the use of banned weapons, and acts that contravene international treaties and conventions aren’t occurring.
This past weekend, the International Committee of the Red Cross waded into the fray, putting out a statement against the prospective pardons. Without specifically referencing Trump, Gallagher, and the other people reputedly up for pardons and amnesties, the authors of the Red Cross statement opined that granting amnesty to soldiers still on trial for the murder of civilians essentially gave the green light to illegal acts, including violations of the Geneva Conventions. Others have argued that since Trump actually has a command role within the military structure, his absolving war criminals of responsibility for their illegal acts might itself constitute a war crime. As precedent, they have cited the prosecution of senior Nazis and Japanese officials after World War II.
In The New York Times, retired Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson and former State Department official J. Kael Weston published a scathing opinion piece warning that Trump’s prospective actions would wreak havoc on morale in the armed forces, and that such a rash of pardons would also put Americans overseas at great risk. After all, if the United States goes down this extra-legal path, if the commander-in-chief condones acts of ruthless violence, what’s to stop any other army or armed faction from similar actions?
Of all the ghastly actions and rhetoric of those who hold power in the United States today, the glorification of violence is one of the most discombobulating. Like any other program of violence, whether committed by states or by terrorist groups, Trump’s tactics aim to terrorize opponents, to keep them off-balance, and to control populations through the random spreading of fear and the capricious carrying out of bloody acts.
Of course, Trump isn’t unique among US leaders in condoning acts of extreme, arguably extra-legal violence. To take just three, of many, examples of criminal violence condoned from on high in recent decades: The Phoenix Program essentially legitimated wholesale assassination in Vietnam. And, in the U.S.-sponsored dirty wars in 1970s and 1980s Latin America, untold numbers were tortured or executed in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay and elsewhere, at the hands of U.S.-backed death squads. Obama’s embrace of drone warfare also generated high numbers of civilian casualties as “collateral damage.”
Where Trump does differ from his predecessors, however, is in his embrace of violence as a central part of the spectacle, the grotesque carnival, of his political presence. He talks about violence and its perpetrators not in terms of strategy but almost as purifying goods in themselves. He carefully uses violent imagery at his campaign rallies to draw supporters to him like moths to a flame.
Trump fashions himself as a latter-day Andrew Jackson — the man who instigated the horrific Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of the Cherokee and many other Indigenous nations from within the U.S. Southeast. Jackson, the country’s seventh president, is idolized by Trump for his coarse populism, his fundamentally racist worldview, his brutalist language against his political opponents, and his monstrous acts of violence against people he regarded as less than fully human.
It’s that same willingness to take the gloves off and to torment internal “enemies” that drew Trump to one-time sheriff of Maricopa County Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of criminal contempt for siccing his officers onto those suspected, because of racial profiling, of being undocumented immigrants. Trump pardoned Arpaio back in 2017.
It’s that same poke-‘em-in-the-eye mentality that led Trump to sing the praises of Montana congressman Greg Gianforte, who body-slammed a Guardian journalist on the eve of his election in May 2017.
Perhaps Trump thinks that his defense of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, in the wake of the Saudi killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or his bonhomie with violent and repressive leaders such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, are somehow similarly transgressive.
During World War II, units of the Nazi SS wore Totenkopf patches on their uniforms. These images of skulls and crossbones came to be associated with Nazi war crimes and the deliberate, systematic, all-encompassing use of violence against Europe’s Jewish population.
Have we learned nothing from the past? When powerful leaders fetishize violence, and reward those who kill civilians on a dime, we begin the slide down the slippery slope to atrocity and nightmares are unleashed.