In 2012, I was the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, in overall command of NATO operational forces worldwide. My trusted subordinate commander of the International Security Force Afghanistan was a superb U.S. Marine Corps General and a Naval Academy classmate of mine, John Allen. He called me late in the year to inform me that a group of U.S. Marines had been videotaped and photographed that summer by their fellow Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban combatants who had been killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. John was deeply, justifiably upset. He outlined the difficulties ahead — particularly the real additional danger to our troops — caused by the enormous backlash that we both knew would come in country, once the world knew what these Americans had done. I remember the anguish in his voice.
Those Marines were subsequently charged and punished by military courts for, or themselves pled guilty to, obvious violations of our code of conduct. Some were demoted a rank or, in at least one case, discharged — albeit honorably. The fellow Marines who conducted the disciplinary activity were sober, thoughtful and fully knowledgeable of the stress of combat operations. (One Marine’s conviction was overturned in 2017, due to meddling by an enraged four-star general who oversaw the investigation into this case, though even then, the general took action to attempt to, he wrote, “protect the institutional integrity of the military justice process.” This was correctly construed by the military appellate system as “undue command influence” — demonstrating the military judicial system is indeed self-policing.)
There was not a shred of “political correctness” in the convictions. Though some judges could not inflict harsher punishment due to plea deals, the Marines’ actions represented a real failure in our overall command discipline, disgraced the Marine Corps and put their fellow Marines in more danger on the battlefield. It was a low point in our campaign in Afghanistan, where at that moment we had 150,000 brave U.S. and Alliance troops engaged in a difficult and frustrating fight.
But according to the New York Times, it appears that President Trump is considering pardoning those men, as well as other military members credibly charged with a variety of crimes, including murdering an enemy captive or killing unarmed civilians. (The President is also reportedly considering pardoning a security contractor twice convicted by a federal court.) All of these actions are gross violations of the laws of war and the U.S. code of military conduct. They are extreme ethical and moral failures.