Former Marine Commandant tells Trump that pardoning troops accused of war crimes 'relinquishes the moral high ground'

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Former Marine Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak has issued a statement urging President Donald Trump and members of Congress to oppose pardons for those accused or convicted of war crimes since, he argued, it would "relinquish the United States' moral high ground."

"If President Trump follows through on reports that he will mark Memorial Day by pardoning individuals accused or convicted of war crimes, he will betray these ideals and undermine decades of precedent in American military justice that has contributed to making our country's fighting forces the envy of the world," said Krulak, who served in the Marine Corps for more than three decades before retiring in 1999 as the 31st Commandant.


Krulak, a two-time Purple Heart recipient and son of legendary Lt. Gen. Victor "Brute" Krulak, went on to say that "disregard for the law undermines our national security," and it would negatively impact combat effectiveness, increase the risk to U.S. troops, and provide a propaganda boon to extremists.

The retired general's statement came in response to recent reporting over the weekend that Trump was considering the possibility of issuing pardons on Memorial Day to Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher and Special Forces Maj. Matthew Golsteyn — both of which are currently undergoing court-martial proceedings on separate war crimes charges — as well as a group of Marine scout snipers who were accused of urinating on the bodies of Taliban corpses in 2011.

When reached for further comment by Task & Purpose, Krulak said that he and more than 170 retired generals and admirals had previously done work on anti-torture legislation with Human Rights First, the organization that posted the statement.

"No sooner do we see victory there before we have a president who is going to pardon people who have been found guilty or are suspected of guilt under the Uniform Code of Military Justice," Krulak told Task & Purpose in a brief phone interview.

"We can talk all we want about what he's doing with the rule of law under his authority but to start saying that a trial by jury under the UCMJ is now something that can be overturned is sending just a terrible signal to the men and women who are currently serving," Krulak said. "It sets a precedent that we could possibly regret."

In his written statement, Krulak also referenced a Tuesday tweet from retired Gen. Martin Dempsey, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who criticized the "wholesale pardon of US service members accused of war crimes," though he did not mention Trump's name.

"More important than the message such pardons would send to others, however, is that which it would send to our own service members and citizens," Krulak wrote, including a quote from former Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in opposition to torture: "This is a moral debate. It is about who we are. I don't mourn the loss of any terrorist's life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves."

Krulak closed by saying that "indiscriminate pardons" would relinquish the United States' moral high ground and undermine good order and discipline within the military.

"I urge the President against taking this step and hope that Members of Congress will oppose it," he said.

As a captain, Krulak earned the Silver Star for his heroism during the Vietnam War for repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire and leading his men away from enemy contact despite being weak from loss of blood. He retired from the Marine Corps after 35 years and went on to become an executive and board member for a number of organizations, according to an official biography.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Task & Purpose.

You can read Krulak's full statement below:

For almost 15 years I have led a group that has grown to more than 170 retired admirals and generals who share a belief that fidelity to our nation's most cherished ideals is the foundation of our security. If President Trump follows through on reports that he will mark Memorial Day by pardoning individuals accused or convicted of war crimes, he will betray these ideals and undermine decades of precedent in American military justice that has contributed to making our country's fighting forces the envy of the world.

As General Martin Dempsey, retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently stated, "Absent evidence of innocence or injustice the wholesale pardon of US servicemembers accused of war crimes signals [to] our troops and allies that we don't take the Law of Armed Conflict seriously."

Disregard for the law undermines our national security by reducing combat effectiveness, increasing the risks to our troops, hindering cooperation with allies, alienating populations whose support the United States needs in the struggle against terrorism, and providing a propaganda tool for extremists who wish to do us harm.

More important than the message such pardons would send to others, however, is that which it would send to our own servicemembers and citizens. As the late Senator John McCain said in 2011 about torture and war crimes:

"This is a moral debate. It is about who we are. I don't mourn the loss of any terrorist's life. What I do mourn is what we lose when by official policy or official neglect we confuse or encourage those who fight this war for us to forget that best sense of ourselves. Through the violence, chaos and heartache of war, through deprivation and cruelty and loss, we are always Americans, and different, stronger and better than those who would destroy us."

If President Trump issues indiscriminate pardons of individuals accused – or convicted by their fellow servicemembers -- of war crimes, he relinquishes the United States' moral high ground and undermines the good order and discipline critical to winning on the battlefield. I urge the President against taking this step and hope that Members of Congress will oppose it.

US Marine Corps
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