President Donald Trump’s grant of full pardons to four Blackwater security contractors convicted of murder and other offenses for slaughtering 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007 represents more than failed leadership. His exoneration of American war criminals makes the jobs of current U.S. service members harder and degrades national security.
These pardons will undermine respect for rule of law among our armed forces and security contractors entrusted with lethal power overseas, and complicate commanders’ efforts to ensure respect for rule of law during military operations. These legal exonerations also lessen our nation’s safety by signaling that Americans can get away with anything in war, a potent recruiting message for ISIS and similar terrorists. And they will undermine our allies’ trust in us.
The Blackwater contractors Trump pardoned are not heroes deserving of sympathy for bad decisions made in the fog of war. Their trials — seven years of proceedings that required an extraordinary commitment to wartime accountability by Department of Justice professionals who refused to allow impunity for this deadly rampage by Americans — exposed the brutal reality of the contractors’ indifference to innocent lives.
Murder and manslaughter convictions
Importantly, these men were not convicted of esoteric international crimes; they were convicted of first-degree murder (for one contractor) and manslaughter (for the other three) for opening fire in a crowded intersection in downtown Baghdad – an unprovoked rampage that slaughtered civilians trying to go about their daily lives in that war-torn country.
Such homicides also constituted war crimes, given the wartime context and the killing of innocent civilians – thus magnifying both the harm done by their commission, and the resultant harm wreaked by Trump’s pardons. Trump has already demonstrated that he understands very little about the role law plays in war, and why accountability for violating the law of war’s fundamental norms is so central to the legitimacy of U.S. military operations. It’s obvious he is equally ignorant about how respect for this law preserves the moral integrity of the men and women who fight for our nation plus those who serve alongside them in contractor positions.
The operation of law in war — of American law that extends to those fighting and working for our country overseas — is not an arcane legal proposition dominated by bleeding heart lawyers. The law that these contractors violated is premised on the hard-fought experience of military professionals who understand better than most the moral hazard of treating war as a proverbial “Trump card” to justify all brutality.
But a Trump card is what we continue to see in the misplaced sympathy of our commander in chief. Pardoning men who commit such serious crimes — like Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance, convicted by combat-hardened soldiers for ordering his men to kill non-threatening civilians out of a vainglorious desire to prove himself — shows that Trump doesn’t care about what is in the best interests of the men and women leading our armed forces. Their responsibility includes preserving a line between justified and unjustified violence in war, thus preventing unchecked lethal force from destroying their troops from the inside out.
Protecting civilians is fundamental
This latest use of the Trump pardon card also dangerously ignores how criminal accountability for violating the laws of war contributes to the preservation of U.S. global legitimacy. The United States since George Washington has believed in fighting our wars in accordance with the limits established by both U.S. and international law. The most fundamental of those is the protection of civilians from unjustified violence and suffering. Such accountability reinforces respect for the law and the retention of the moral high ground — often the crucial difference between our forces and those we fight, like ISIS and Al Qaeda.
There will always be service members and other Americans accompanying the military on the battlefield, like the Blackwater security guards, who fail to live up to the standards our nation demands of them. Pursuing accountability for such failures and imposing punishment after conviction sends a message to our allies. It also sends a message to civilians in places like Iraq — where we claimed to be helping the average Iraqi by forcibly ousting the tyrannical Saddam Hussein — that America’s commitment to the rule of law is more than words, and that our forces can be expected to conduct their operations legally, morally and honorably.
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Criminal accountability for massacres such as the one perpetrated by the Blackwater contractors in Nisoor Square reinforces an important message: “If you must fight, safeguard civilians and punish those amongst you who fail to distinguish the innocent from the enemy.” Criminal accountability for war crimes also ensures that the tiny number of U.S. personnel who do murder in the name of America, wearing our flag, will justifiably be perceived as genuine outliers. Judge Royce Lamberth, the federal judge who sentenced several of the contractors for their needless slaughter, said: “We hold our armed forces and our contractors accountable for their actions.” Not if they are pardoned later, we don’t.
Rachel E. VanLandingham (@rachelv12), a professor of law at Southwestern Law School, is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former military attorney. Geoffrey S. Corn (@cornjag1), a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former military attorney and intelligence officer, is the Vinson & Elkins Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law Houston and a Distinguished Fellow for the Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy of the Jewish Institute for National Security in America. They are co-authors of a detailed proposal to strengthen American war crimes accountability forthcoming in the American Law Review.
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