U.S. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, in a military court, was acquitted of murder charges in the death of a captured fighter for ISIS (Islamic State, Iraq and Syria) but found guilty of improperly posing for a photo with the prisoner’s body. President Donald Trump has been loudly voicing his views on the case, insisting that Gallagher shouldn’t lose his Navy SEAL status — and law professors Rachel E. VanLandingham and Geoffrey S. Corn, in a November 26 article for legal expert Benjamin Wittes’ Lawfare Blog, stress that Trump’s actions show a failure to understand how military justice operates.
When Trump railed against a U.S. review process to determine whether or not Gallagher should keep his SEAL status, Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer opposed Trump’s intervention in the matter — and was fired. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, however, has said that he fired Spencer for not consulting him and proposing a deal directly to Trump.
“This chaos in military discipline and personnel actions is the direct result of Trump’s reckless dismissal of the judgments of his military commanders and his misunderstanding of the profession of arms,” VanLandingham and Corn write. “The president has legal authority to intervene in these matters, but his misguided actions risk not only undermining the authority of his commanders, but also, eroding the honor and integrity of the U.S. armed forces. The Spencer/Esper soap opera may be at the forefront of the news cycle, but the real story is the corruption of military good order and discipline.”
Although the crime that Gallagher was found guilty of isn’t nearly as serious as murder, VanLandingham and Corn explain, that doesn’t mean it is trivial.
“Many, perhaps including the president, may consider the crime for which Gallagher was convicted — of posing for photos with a dead enemy — quite trivial,” VanLandingham and Corn observe. “But discipline in war means following rules. These rules are part of U.S. and international law — in fact, international law that the U.S. was the first to codify —and central to the legitimate use of national military power.
Trump, VanLandingham and Corn stress, should have let the U.S. military itself decide what was appropriate for Gallagher.
“Trump’s overt disdain for the highly effective military justice system and the commanders who rely on it to hold subordinates accountable for battlefield misconduct has been on display from the inception of Gallagher’s court-martial.,” the law professors observe. “His disdain was apparently not tempered even after Gallagher was acquitted for the most serious charges of war crimes. Instead, the president intervened to reverse the punishment meted out by the same military jury that acquitted Gallagher of the most serious offenses.”
According to VanLandingham and Corn, Trump’s interference with Gallagher also shows that he doesn’t comprehend “the rules of war” that the U.S. armed forces are supposed to adhere to.
“The trouble is that (Trump) misunderstands the issues of both force and ethic,” VanLandingham and Corn assert. “The force that wins wars is disciplined, not unrestrained and indiscriminate. And the ethic of the U.S. military is one of honor gained by adherence to the rules of war no matter how extreme the situation — or how powerful the temptation to break them.”