U.S. Army Lt. Clint Lorance was convicted of murder for ordering soldiers to open fire at three men on a motorcycle in Afghanistan. U.S. Army Major Matthew Golsteyn pleaded not guilty to the charge of killing a Taliban bomb maker. U.S. Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher was cleared of murdering an insurgent but demoted for posing for a photo with the corpse of an enemy.
President Trump pardoned all three, which led critics to charge that he condoned hideous war crimes. The president also ordered that embattled Eddie Gallagher be allowed to retire with his coveted “Trident” insignia. The president’s actions sparked pushback from Navy Secretary Richard Spencer who said Gallagher’s case sent the message “that you can get away with things,” adding, “We have to have good order and discipline. It’s the backbone of what we do.” Those who find the military prosecution of soldiers puzzling might find a lesson in a previous conflict, as illustrated by the 1980 film Breaker Morant.
In the Boer War of 1899-1902 in South Africa, the British faced Boer irregulars known as kommandos, who deployed hit-and-gun guerilla tactics with deadly effect. In response, the British developed the Bushveldt Carbineers, an Australian special forces unit capable of taking the fight to the Boers. The Carbineers proved effective, but when they followed orders to execute prisoners British commanders charged them with murder.
The British strike up a court martial for carbineers Harry Morant (Edward Woodward), Peter Hancock (Bryan Brown) and George Witten (Lewis Fitzgerald). Witten is the author of Scapegoats of the Empire, The True Story of Morant’s Bushveldt Carbineers, the only firsthand account of the trial. In that proceeding, Major J.F. Thomas (Jack Thompson) defends his fellow Australians.
“Now, when the rules and customs of war are departed from by one side, one must expect the same sort of behavior from the other,” Thomas explains. “Accordingly, the officers of the Carbineers should be, and up until now have been, given the widest possible discretion in their treatment of the enemy. Now I don’t ask for proclamations condoning distasteful methods of war, but I do say that we must take for granted that it does happen. Let us not give our officers hazy, vague instructions on what they may or may not do. Let’s not reprimand them on the one hand for hampering a column of prisoners, and another time and another place haul them up as murderers for obeying orders.” Well put, but there was a bit more to it.
“The fact of the matter is that war changes men’s natures,” Thompson tells the court. “The barbarities of war are seldom committed by normal men. The tragedy of war is that these horrors are committed by normal men in abnormal situations. Situations in which the ebb and flow of everyday life have been replaced by a constant round of fear and anger and blood and death. Soldiers at war are not to be judged by civilian rules as the prosecution is attempting to do.”
And as American military bureaucrats were attempting to do in the cases of Lorance, Golsteyn and Gallagher. He was a SEAL, part of the most elite fighting force in the world, and all three were trained to deal with an asymmetrical conflict against Islamic terrorists, the most savage and depraved people in the world. Their prosecution made less sense than the British court martial of the Australian Carbineers, despite their great success against the Boer kommandos.
Gallagher was acquitted but for a photograph with a corpse the U.S. military sought to strip him of his rank and decorations. Bureaucrat Richard Spencer, a former Marine aviator who by all indications never saw combat, upheld the process. “The Trident review process with the senior enlisted reviewing fellow senior enlisted is critical,” Spencer said, and “In order to preserve the resiliency of the naval institution, I had to step up and do something when it came to the Gallagher case.” President Trump didn’t think so.
“Then they want to put these warriors in jail for 25 years,” Trump said. “No. We’re not going to do that to our people.” So in the standoff between bureaucrats and combat soldiers, Trump has picked his side.
The British executed Hancock and Morant, outstanding soldiers who should have been kept in the fight. For its part, the United States has neglected to execute a convicted mass murderer whose death is long overdue.
On November 5, 2009, Major Nidal Hasan, a self-proclaimed “soldier of Allah,” murdered 13 American soldiers and wounded more than 30 of “our people.” Sentenced to death in 2013, Hasan remains alive at Fort Leavenworth, a zealot for the Islamic State.
That injustice does not appear to trouble Richard Spencer and other bureaucrats who criticized President Trump for pardoning “our people.” Lorance, Golsteyn and Gallagher would probably not mind if the president ordered the execution of Nidal Hasan, the same sort of terrorist our people were fighting abroad.