My So-Called War Crimes

December 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

When I first saw this item in my Google News feed, I thought it must be from The Onion or Andy Borowitz.

 But no, it was real, from the Daily Beast not a parody site. “If Donald Trump gets his wish, he’ll soon take the three convicted or accused war criminals he spared from consequence on the road as special guests in his re-election campaign.”

Why would war criminals be an asset for Trump? Trump’s base. of course, will not abandon him no matter what he does. But what is the gain? What virtues do these men embody that will pump up the enthusiasm and perhaps attract others.

First, let’s meet the war criminal who Trump has supported most strongly.

Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher and other Navy SEALs gave the young captive medical aid that day in Iraq in 2017, sedating him and cutting an airway in his throat to help him breathe. Then, without warning, according to colleagues, Chief Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck. A week later, Chief Gallagher sent a friend in California a text with a photo of himself with a knife in one hand, holding the captive up by the hair with the other. “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife,” he wrote. [NYT ]

Gallagher was acquitted of murder when another SEAL claimed to have killed the victim first, cutting off his breathing tube as an act of mercy. But apparently Trump and those who share his views think there’s something noble about knifing a dead man in the neck. Certainly Chief Gallagher thinks it’s something to brag about.

One SEAL sniper told investigators he heard a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then saw a schoolgirl in a flower-print hijab crumple to the ground. Another sniper reported hearing a shot from Chief Gallagher’s position, then seeing a man carrying a water jug fall, a red blotch spreading on his back. Neither episode was investigated and the fate of the civilians remains unknown.

The Times is being extremely careful here, saying that the fate of the civilians Gallagher shot “remains unknown.” But take a wild guess.

At trial, the SEALs were found not guilty.* But while the evidence may not have been sufficient for the military jury to convict the men, it was enough for the Navy to seek their removal from the SEALs. Trump intervened and forced the Secretary of the Navy to resign, effectively allowing Gallagher and the others to remain as SEALs.

What makes Gallagher so appealing to Trump, his followers, and Fox News? They deny the accusations, of course, but even if the men had been convicted, the case elicits ideas and emotions that are essential elements of much conservative world view in the US these days.

To begin with, supporting the SEALs requires a strong sense of tribalism. This tribalism goes far beyond the “loyalty” Jonathan Haidt sees as a “moral foundation” of conservative thinking. Tribalism sees the world as Them against Us. We are under constant threat from Them. This view obviously pervades domestic politics, where Trump’s go-to strategy has been to claim that Democrats are out to get him.** In foreign policy, it means that anything We do to Them is justified. Anything. Trump has voiced his preferences for torture, cages for border-crossing children, alligator-filled moats, and nuclear bombs, all on the grounds that these protect America from its various enemies. The willful killing of civilians easily fits into the list.

Therefore, We must defend the actual people who carry out these actions — the protectors of the country (the military, border guards, ICE) and the protectors of the social order (police). In practice, this means that there are no restraints on what they can do to people who are not Us or to people who dissent from or threaten the social order. So long as soldiers and cops are ostensibly doing their job, anything goes.

This defense of those who protect our tribe has an obvious corollary: American autonomy, an innocuous term for the idea that we should not be involved in any relationship of mutual regulation or obligation with other countries. “World government” has long been a trigger for the right, and they remain suspicious of the UN and other international pacts. What are “war crimes” after all except the product of international law, a concept which to US conservatives is illegitimate. So on Fox News, the shooting of a little girl or the knifing a wounded prisoner in the neck are “so-called war crimes.” The law that criminalizes these actions, in the America-first view, is not legitimate and is therefore null and void. No law, no crime.

Finally, the Trumpists see Gallagher as an example of the conservative ideal of masculinity. I have gone on too long already, and this really needs no further explanation. It’s enough to note that Trump refers to him admiringly as a “warrior.”

*For most of the charges, the prosecution had no hard evidence, only the testimony of other SEALs.  The court convicted Gallagher on one count — the taking of a picture of the dead ISIS fighter. Kind of hard to ignore that photo he sent around. As for sniping at civilians, when Gallagher was shooting at the young girl, he didn’t take any selfies.

** This “out to get us” strategy was also part of Gallagher’s defense. His lawyers argued that the men who testified against him were motivated by a desire to get rid of him.

No comments: