“Thank you for your service”: pardons for war criminals and indifference for those damaged by endless war

I can’t remember who recently said it, but the point has been made that we often call people heroes because it’s easier to sacrifice them when they’re given this honorific and simply move on.

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Over his time in office, there’s been a tendency in the American media’s coverage of the current U.S. president’s judicial pardons to look more closely at the obviously political ones. While he’s been more than willing to use the powers of his office to release or expunge the records of convicted criminals like rightwing author Dinesh D’Souza or tax dodging former New York City Police Commissioner Berard Kerik to grab headlines, there are other cases that are much more disturbing.

In a long and well reported piece for the Washington Post earlier this month, Greg Jaffe looked into the story of one of these troubling pardons from November of last year.

1st Lt. Clint Lorance commanded a part of the 82nd Airborne Division called the 1st Platoon in Afghanistan for just three days in 2013. On the last day before he was relieved of his command, he provoked an incident that ended with the deaths of two Afghan men and the wounding of another, leading military authorities to investigate and later charge him with 2nd-degree murder, lying to superiors and ordering those under his command to shoot civilians

After being granted clemency, Lt. Lorance was released from Fort Leavenworth prison having served just six years of a 19-year sentence. He was then given star treatment on Fox News and applauded by American right wing media, who had taken up the cause of a man who, according to Jaffe’s account, “committed a war crime a day” during his time with the 1st Platoon.

In testimony at Lorance’s trial, where it was also revealed he ordered two sharpshooters to fire at unarmed civilians on his second day there, one of the soldiers serving under him said the lieutenant once remarked, “It’s funny watching those f—ckers dance,”

Not much is known about the Afghans killed except that they were found to be armed with only pens and cucumbers and that one was a village elder, a vital constituency in terms of the losing battle to win ‘hearts and minds’ as part of NATO’s long term counter insurgency strategy in the country.

The crime that led to a death sentence for two of the three men was traveling by motorcycle soon after Lorance had forbidden this form of transportation within 1st Platoon’s sector of operations near the town of Payenzai, west of the country’s capital, Kandahar, a diktat the Afghans were almost certainly unaware of.

On November 15th of last year, when the president freed Lorance, he also granted clemency to another soldier who was at that time still awaiting trial for murder. According to those who investigated the incident and laid the charges against him, Major Mathew Golsteyn took the law into his own hands in Afghanistan in 2010, executing a suspected bomb maker who’d been released from American custody after being interrogated. Golsteyn was also said to have told CIA interviewers that he later burned the man’s body in the base’s burn pit.

While we’ll never know whether Golsteyn was correct in concluding that the suspect was guilty of creating improvised explosive devices and would have gone on to endanger the lives of those cooperating with NATO forces as he said he feared, bad intelligence, often acquired for money from local partners, has not been uncommon in the conflict in Afghanistan, a maddeningly complex country of competing ethnic and kinship interests. Many of those now held in Guantanamo Bay and untold numbers targeted by airstrikes and drones are victims of local score settling.

Although he wasn’t convicted of a crime, the president also reversed a decision by the U.S. military to demote Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who, though found not guilty of murder, was found to have posed with the dead body of a teenager believed to have been fighting as part of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and for shooting at unarmed civilians.

As reported by USA Today the same day the pardons were announced, “According to prosecutors, Gallagher’s fellow SEALs became so disturbed with his killings of civilians that they tampered with his sniper rifle to make it less accurate, and would also fire warning shots at civilians to prevent Gallagher from shooting at them.”

While most of the working class people in the lower ranks fighting these endless wars are also victims of them, there are those like Lorance, Golsteyn and Gallagher who should never have been deployed in the first place but are all too often seen by superiors as overzealous rather than dangerous. We saw this with those in what was called the ‘Kill Team’ in Afghanistan and in the infamous photos showing gleeful torture of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

In the end, the focus of Jaffe’s story for the Post is more on those who suffered under (and nine of whom testified against) Lorance and were left to deal with the mental health consequences of his crime on top of their other experiences in Afghanistan. Five members of 1st Platoon are known to have committed suicide, with one 27 year old, James O. Twist, taking his own life just prior to Lt. Lorance’s pardon.

Besides homelessness, which has afflicted veterans of neo-colonial wars since at least Vietnam, suicide has become an epidemic for NATO soldiers returning from the war in Afghanistan, which should be enough reason to finally bring it to an end after 19 years.

Canada, which participated in the Afghan war from the beginning until 2014, has already lost more than a third of the number of casualties, 158, suffered there due to suicide, a grim statistic that’s likely to increase in the years ahead. The country’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail looked at the issue of veteran suicide in a celebrated 2015 piece entitled, “The Unremembered”.

It tells the stories of soldiers who took their own lives after returning home damaged by their experiences. One of these soldiers, Corporal Jamie McMullin, born into a military family, was deployed to Afghanistan in September of 2008.

McMullin lost a dozen friends in the war, suffered from PTSD and became an alcoholic. He attempted suicide earlier in 2011 before being found hanging by his wife later that same year at just 29 years of age. He left three young sons behind him.

While the planned withdrawal of American ground troops from Afghanistan, if it happens at all, will probably not end the air war, it will save the lives of Afghans and NATO soldiers alike. It could also save many American servicemembers, plenty of them not old enough to drink an alcoholic beverage at home, from a lifetime of trauma.

I can’t remember who recently said it, but the point has been made that we often call people heroes because it’s easier to sacrifice them when they’re given this honorific and simply move on. This was the case with those working in hospitals, in public transportation and in essential businesses like grocery stores over the last few months but has almost always been the case with those deployed to fight endless wars that amount to little more than profit generating exercises for defense contractors and the well-connected.

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