Donald Trump loves him some bluster, worships machismo, and always has. Spectacle over substance has long been the name of his game. Decades before his successful presidential run, back when he was still a cartoon billionaire playboy, Trump took out a full-page newspaper advertisement that argued that New York state should bring back the death penalty for five adolescents arrested in 1989 for allegedly beating and raping a jogger—even though the boys hadn’t yet been convicted. Turns out that the infamous Central Park Five were later exonerated by DNA evidence. To this day, Trump refuses to apologize, even though his suggestion would have resulted in the execution of five innocent kids. But regret isn’t part of The Donald’s playbook.
Neither is adherence to facts, or recognition of history. Trump illustrated this point on the 2016 campaign trail, when he repeated a demonstrably false story about how then-Capt. John J. Pershing (future commanding general for all U.S. forces in World War I)—“a rough, rough guy”—had, during the brutal American counterinsurgency in the Philippines (1899-1913), once captured 50 Muslim “terrorists,” dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood, shot 49, and set the sole survivor loose to spread the tale to his rebel comrades. The outcome, or moral of the story, according to Trump, was that “for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem, OK?” Well, no, actually, the Philippine insurgency dragged on for another decade, and a Muslim-separatist rebellion continues in the islands to this day.
No matter. For Trump, as the saying goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In these strange times, the current occupant of the Oval Office, “the leader of the free world,” revels in tough-guy military bravado. With an apparently crippling case of bone spurs keeping him out of combat in Vietnam, Trump has had the luxury of reveling in the romance of war, having never seen its atrocities up close. Paradoxically, the candidate-turned-president who regularly rails against endless war (but rarely puts his money where his mouth is) isn’t exactly averse to combat in general. Rather, while he rightfully critiques expensive, aimless wars, Trump thinks conflicts should be short and “savage.”
Which may be why The Donald seems to have such a soft spot for American soldiers accused of war crimes. This week, the self-styled anti-war president pardoned two notorious alleged war criminals and reversed the demotion of a third. The decision got passing attention from the mainstream press, but quickly faded behind the raucous distraction of the impeachment show unfolding on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, this was a profound matter, with serious implications. Trump’s pardons may play well with his flag-waving, nationalistic base, but they also encourage indiscipline in the military ranks and—like the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo fiascos—stain America’s reputation in the world, motivate extremists and thereby make the nation less safe
I was a combat soldier for my entire adult life. I know the vexing intricacies of counterinsurgency, of sorting friend from foe in foreign lands where no one wears uniforms. I know the immense power young sergeants and officers wield over life and death in distant wars, and the temptation to abuse it. I too have stepped up to the abyss in the wake of infuriating attacks in which brothers die and no enemy pays—or even appears. Still, all three of these presidential pardon recipients were accused—in the face of substantial evidence—of murdering prisoners or civilians on the battlefield. Two hadn’t even faced trial yet. Furthermore, a couple of these guys were turned in or testified against by their fellow troopers, many in the same unit as the accused. That’s extraordinarily rare. Think the police “blue wall of silence” is sturdy? The military invented the concept.
Now, one dirty secret must be aired: Trump’s “mercy” (the foreign victims received none from the accused) pardons provide genuine red meat for some of the military’s frustrated rank and file, who undoubtedly feel abandoned by the American people and used and abused by their government in unwinnable wars. Many, but not all, inherently sympathize with fellow soldiers caught up in the complexities and chaos of guerrilla wars waged among the local populace. But that’s why the military has officers, laws, a chain of command.
War crimes cases aren’t supposed to be popularity contests; they are careful legal processes with specific purposes: to enforce discipline and humanity, as well as to avoid alienating the indigenous population. That’s the cardinal rule in counterinsurgency (COIN): Don’t do anything to reinforce the enemy narrative and thereby fill their ranks with new fighters. Some guerrilla war aficionados within the military have even taken to calling the concept COIN math.
Seen in this light, as a result of these pardons (and other actions), Trump acts as an unpaid “terrorist” recruiting sergeant. Many on the Arab street will see right through the transparent hypocrisy. So the U.S. has held thousands of “terror” suspects in various prisons across the Mideast, some for decades in Guantanamo Bay, often without trial, they’ll ask, but accused American war criminals get a free pass without even facing charges?
Trust me, it won’t play well abroad, even if it pleases some emotive, uninformed folks here at home. Study after study has provided empirical evidence that America’s torture program and abuses at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo were wildly counterproductive and helped infuse the ranks of Islamist groups across the Greater Middle East. Ever wonder why Islamic State always had its Western beheading victims decked out in those orange jumpsuits? Yeah, that’s what U.S.-held detainees at Guantanamo wore. It was an illustrative symbol.
Certainly, Trump, the quintessential anti-intellectual, who hardly worries about these second- and third-order effects, is uniquely, even flagrantly, obtuse. Yet, in another sense, this president is in good company, following an inherently American leadership pattern of excusing our war crimes and meting out shockingly soft punishments for the brutal transgressions of U.S. military men.
SCROLL TO CONTINUE WITH CONTENT
Never Miss a Beat.
Get our best delivered to your inbox.
Which brings us back to the Philippines, an all but forgotten war, that was once (before Afghanistan) America’s longest. It was there that the U.S. military first experimented with waterboarding captives, there that it imported Native American containment policies and shuffled the populace into concentration camps, there where roughly one-sixth (some 500,000) of the civilian population died of war-related causes.
It was in the Philippines, in 1902, after a group of villagers attacked an occupying U.S. Army garrison at Balangiga, on the island of Samar, killing 45, that Gen. Jacob “Howling Wilderness” Smith earned his moniker. Smith, who had taken part in the massacre of Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee, was appointed to end the resistance and “pacify” Samar. “Hell-roaring” Jake took up the task with glee. He instructed a subordinate that every native should be “treated as an enemy until he has conclusively shown that he is a friend.” Furthermore, he bellowed, “I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better you will please me. I want all persons killed that are capable of bearing arms.” When the officer asked for an age limit, Smith quickly replied, “Persons of 10 years and older.” When the flabbergasted subordinate pressed for clarification, the general reiterated his order.
Smith’s men burned and killed their way across the island. None one knows exactly how many died. Problem was, the press caught on and wrote critical stories about Smith “the butcher.” Mark Twain published an essay in response, flippantly suggesting that the American flag be redesigned, “the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones.” Gen. Adna Chaffee, the senior general in the Philippines, war Secretary Elihu Root, and even President Teddy Roosevelt sensed trouble. Someone had to be held accountable for the atrocities on Samar and across the archipelago, and it sure wasn’t going to be them. First, Root published the cases of 39 soldiers who had supposedly been convicted of torturing or shooting captives, but that too turned out to be a fiasco. A bit of research showed that most had simply been fined or verbally reprimanded for their horrendous crimes.
The Army, and the press, needed a scapegoat, and thus Smith was put on trial. There he played the perfect villain. He brushed off his boss, Chaffee, who had urged him to assert that he hadn’t meant his orders to be taken literally. Old “Howling Jake” refused. Chaffee, fearful for the implication of his own command in general war crimes, decided Smith’s conviction was a foregone conclusion—and found guilty he was. But as for punishment? It was remarkably mild. Root urged a lenient sentence, because Smith had, after all, been fighting “cruel and barbarous savages.” Roosevelt—himself a blustering warmonger—concurred, and Smith was merely admonished and retired with full benefits. A media pariah, he remained a hero in the eyes of many of the troops in the Philippines.
And that’s where it gets dangerous. The president, secretary of war and the top general in the Philippines had sent a message to everyone, from the lowliest private to the most senior officers, that—in distant provinces, at least—atrocities could be committed with near impunity. The press could cry foul and cause enough of a stir to force investigations now and again, but it couldn’t ensure that soldiers were really punished. The message was received loud and clear.
Thus, four years later, when Gen. Leonard Wood (namesake of an active base in Missouri) and my old 4th Cavalry Regiment bombarded and then stormed the crest of the Bud Dajo volcano to root out Muslim separatists (most armed only with knives) and their families, and massacred more than a thousand men, women and children, no one was even tried for war crimes. Pershing, that favorite of Trump, was actually horrified. Having surveyed the scene, he declared, “I would not want to have that on my conscience for the fame of Napoleon.” So much for the rough, tough pig’s blood yarn from the 2016 campaign trail.
Which all begs the question of what exactly will come of the current president’s disavowal of established military regulations and internationally codified rules of war. It’s unlikely that American infantrymen will replay the scale of a Samar or Bud Dajo-style massacre. Still, 18 years of military leadership have taught me that indiscipline—and inhumanity—starts small: a slap of a prisoner, posing for Facebook with war trophies, executing just one captive until, well, entire units go rogue.
In Vietnam not so long ago, unpunished rapes and murders by the ones and twos led, logically, to the My Lai massacre, another instance when the culprits faced little punishment despite the murder of hundreds of civilians (including babies). These days, though ground combat may not produce another Bud Dajo or My Lai, the power of unmanned (but human-piloted) drones to kill with impunity again raises the stark consequence of excusing wanton cruelty.
This week, Trump has done just that: undercut the military justice system and endorsed American brutality. The blood-soaked consequences are his, and, also, ours.