Post-traumatic stress — the nightmares, flashbacks and anxiety set off by terrifying events — is a defining injury of the global war on terrorism. But in the past few decades, the mental health community and the military have come to understand that there is a related, intensifying phenomenon called moral injury.
Moral injury doesn’t simply result from witnessing or participating in the horrors of war. Moral injury comes from participating in events that violate soldiers’ morality or, as the Department of Veterans Affairs describes it : “failing to prevent immoral acts of others, or giving or receiving orders that are perceived as gross moral violations.”
A person suffering from moral injury may be unable to trust friends and family, or the society that enabled the immorality. The injured can question whether virtue exists. Moral injury is often described as a bruise of the soul .
To avoid such injury, militaries long ago adopted procedures to ensure that those who don the uniform can do so with honor and then remove it with pride. One of the pillars of that framework is the military justice system; another is societal taboos against aberrant behavior.
President Trump threatened both those pillars by pardoning Clint Lorance, a former Army officer serving a 19-year sentence for murdering two civilians, and Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, accused of killing an unarmed Afghan, and by reversing the demotion of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, the subject of a high-profile war crimes trial.
Patrick Swanson, who was Mr. Lorance’s company commander in Afghanistan, told The Times : “The tragedy is that people will hail him as a hero, and he is not a hero. He ordered those murders. He lied about them.”
That Mr. Trump would pardon men accused or convicted of war crimes should come as little surprise, given that he campaigned on promises to torture the nation’s enemies and kill their families. Mr. Trump in May became the first modern president to pardon a person convicted of war crimes, when he pardoned Michael Behenna , a former Army lieutenant, who had been convicted of killing a prisoner in Iraq.
The president may think he’s supporting men and women in uniform. “When our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight,” he said in a statement issued by the White House. “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” he said on Twitter last month.
Whatever the reason, absolving people who commit war crimes does great harm to society in general, and the men and women who served honorably — as far more than “killing machines” — in the wars since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in particular.
A nation has to know that military action being taken in its name follows morally defensible rules — that soldiers do not, for instance, kill unarmed civilians or prisoners.
To excuse men who have so flagrantly violated those rules — to treat them as heroes, even — is to cast the idea of
One of the loudest groups pushing for Mr. Trump’s pardons was United American Patriots , a nonprofit organization that supports numerous soldiers accused of crimes, including Mr. Lorance, Mr. Behenna and Major Golsteyn. Last month, Chief Gallagher sued two of his former lawyers and United American Patriots, alleging that his lawyers tried to delay the case to increase fund-raising for the organization.
Supporters of the pardoned men say the military justice system comes down too hard and too often on honorable soldiers fighting through the fog of war. That wouldn’t explain why United American Patriots has made a cause célèbre of Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians in their homes during a one-man nighttime rampage in 2012.
The president might truly believe these pardons won’t endanger soldiers by damaging allied support or emboldening enemies, and they’re probably unlikely to encourage future war crimes, though critics have raised such a specter.
But the impact such formal absolution will have on the veterans of these murky wars and the society that they are working to rejoin will be lasting. Venerating these pardoned men will cause even greater damage.
Mr. Lorance was a men testified that
“There was no threat from those guys whatsoever,” Staff Sgt. Daniel Williams told The Times . After his own men refused to fire, Mr. Lorance radioed a nearby truck to open fire. “This was straight murder,” Sergeant Williams said.
“It is awesome to have you here,” said Pete Hegseth, a co-host of the show and an Iraq war veteran, slapping his guest on the thigh.
“I’m so happy to be an American,” Mr. Lorance said.
Chief Gallagher was charged after demanded that action be taken against him, even though they were threatened with career retribution for doing so. Two SEAL snipers told investigators that Chief Gallagher shot a girl walking on a riverbank with other girls.
He was charged with shooting indiscriminately at unarmed civilians and stabbing a prisoner in 2017. Chief Gallagher was found not guilty of those crimes. A find him guilty of posing for photos with a teenage captive’s dead body. Mr. Trump reversed the demotion that resulted from that conviction.
The president also pardoned admitted to the killing on Fox News in 2016. The pardon ends any military investigation into what happened.
“These are men who went into the most dangerous places on earth with a job to defend us, and made tough calls on a moment’s notice,” Mr. Hegseth said on Fox this year, before mentioning Chief Gallagher, Major Golsteyn and Mr. Lorance. “They’re not war criminals, they’re warriors who have now been accused of certain things that are under review.”
Of course, all war criminals fancy themselves warriors who had to make tough calls, facing the judgment of people who couldn’t possibly understand their actions.
The president has the undisputed power to pardon. Indeed, he should use it more often in cases where guilt or a fair trial are in genuine doubt. But that power cannot be exercised without a cost, in this case injury to the morality of a nation that once held its own to account.
The commander of the Navy SEALs tried to salvage some honor by formally ousting Chief Gallagher from the elite unit and removing the iconic “Trident” pin from Chief Gallagher and three of the officers who oversaw him. Mr. Trump intervened again on Thursday to stop the forging ahead to remove Chief Gallagher from the unit.
The United States military — and its civilian commander — doesn’t have the luxury of simply asserting that it is morally superior to its enemies. It needs to be morally superior, which means abiding by the rule of law, not some sense of American exceptionalism that presumes that monsters cannot exist in our midst.