On Sunday, the New York Times reported on Donald Trump’s apparent plans for Memorial Day:
President Trump has requested the immediate preparation of paperwork needed to pardon several American military members accused or convicted of war crimes — including high-profile cases of murder, attempted murder and desecration of a corpse — indicating that he is considering pardons for the men on or around Memorial Day, according to two United States officials.
The first subject of a potential pardon in the story was the accused serial killer Edward Gallagher, the Navy SEAL whose own men turned him in, saying he had shot a teenage girl and an unarmed old man for sport and had butchered a wounded teenage prisoner with a knife. Fox News and House Republicans somehow chose to proclaim that Gallagher was a martyr, and the commander in chief, in turn, decided that the people on his TV, rather than the people who run his military justice apparatus, were the ones who best understood the situation.
How did Fox decide it had a better understanding of the necessary brutalities of war than the armed forces do? Its coverage seems to habitually introduce Gallagher as being in trouble for knifing the teenage captive—“killing an injured ISIS prisoner of war in Iraq”—while saving for later the part where he trained sniper fire on random civilians. Stabbing a prisoner to death is itself a war crime, to be sure, but it’s easier to posture about the necessity of killing a bad guy than it is to say it’s OK to be blasting away at noncombatants.
The Times itself used the same kind of highest-common-denominator approach in the story: the set of people it introduced as “military members” included Nicholas Slatten, a Blackwater mercenary who was convicted of first-degree murder for the Nisour Square massacre, in which he and his fellow heavily-armed contractors killed 14 Iraqi civilians and wounded 18 more. Slatten is a veteran but he was not a military member when he committed the crime; with our war machinery mutually estranged from civilian politics, and with mercenaries and middlemen making money off the gap between our ability to field volunteer armed forces and our global war project, these are the sort of distinctions nobody feels responsible for making. The war that counts is the culture war, and in that one, a troop is whoever you want to be a troop.
So in Donald Trump’s TV-sized moral universe, he’s decided it’s time to show his support for the troops. On Memorial Day, naturally, because the difference between the day for honoring the war dead and the day for honoring living veterans is another one of those distinctions that belongs to a long-gone version of this country, when people had to at least pretend to take killing and dying seriously. Eventually we’ll just salute the Border Patrol on the last Monday in May as well, since they share a mission with the Army now too.
Pardoning the war criminals would be a monstrous thing to do, but we elected a monster to be president, and the opposition party is still afraid to try to do anything about it. This scheme is one more reminder that behind the tactical and abstract theories about why the safe and responsible thing to do is to demur on impeaching Trump and hope Joe Biden replaces him in January 2021, there is a belief that what he does today doesn’t really count. Unless somebody on Fox tells him to change his mind, Trump is going to pardon war criminals and hail them as heroes, under the authority vested in him by the laws and the people of the United States. The nation that doesn’t impeach Trump is a nation that celebrates war crimes.
Every day that goes by adds another item to the list. Today we killed our fifth child in an immigrant detention camp. We’re content to live in a country that throws children into prison camps and lets them die there. If we cared, we’d have done something.