Military service is deeply appreciated by Americans, and brave warriors are venerated.
But service and bravery do not bestow carte blanche, as President Donald Trump is providing to Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher.
Trump’s micromanagement of the problematic Navy SEAL’s discipline — and pardoning of two Army officers charged with war crimes in Afghanistan — undermines the military chain of command and sends a terrible message about American values.
“If a member of the armed services believes they don’t have to listen to their immediate superior because they can simply go over their head to the president and pundits on Fox News in order to get out of trouble, that is hugely problematic,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
This resonates in Washington, home to the nation’s seventh highest concentration of active-duty service members. Around 131,000 military personnel and dependents live in the state, which is also home to 560,000 veterans.
Gallagher was accused of using his sniper rifle to shoot innocent civilians, including a young girl, knifing an unarmed teen fighter in custody and threatening to kill other SEALs if they reported him.
Gallagher was acquitted of all the charges but one, posing with the body of the dead teen. Details that emerged during an investigation and trial were troubling. On the photo, Gallagher added a caption that said “got him with my hunting knife.”
Whether or not he was court-martialed, the investigation raised serious questions about Gallagher’s judgment and fitness to continue leading an elite SEAL team.
Discipline is essential to a military organization. Service members must also be held to a high standard because they represent the nation and are entrusted to use the military’s awesome power to support and defend the Constitution.
One of the pardoned Army officers was convicted of murdering two unarmed civilians. The other was facing charges for a murder he admitted, during a Fox News appearance, to committing.
When the Navy rightly moved to demote Gallagher and assert that standards of conduct are important, Trump overruled the demotion.
Then, when the Navy decided to remove Gallagher’s trident pin signifying SEAL membership, Trump intervened again via Twitter and demanded that Gallagher keep his pin. Friction between Trump and Navy brass led to the abrupt firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer on Sunday.
This situation devolved from a complicated, painful episode in a problematic war into a Twitter-fueled media circus. It was exacerbated by factions who lionized Gallagher and downplayed his flaws. They capitalized on ambiguity, including the war’s moral dilemmas and tension between restraint and aggression. Backers of Gallagher also successfully baited a president who avoided the draft and has a fondness for bullies.
The vulnerability of the commander in chief to such politicking should be a bipartisan concern. Mercurial leadership, micromanagement, presidential commands via Twitter and repeated turnovers in the defense administration are all deeply troubling. If Gallagher’s pin causes this much upheaval, how will the nation fare in a major military crisis?
Of equal concern is the message sent to the armed services and other nations, friend and foe. The head of the U.S. military is refusing to hold Gallagher accountable for wrongful behavior reported by those serving with him.
America cannot abandon its principles and signal that its military has lost its moral compass. Especially not if it expects other nations to abide by international standards of conduct and provide humane treatment of U.S. personnel in captivity overseas.
The mystique and bravery of Navy SEALs is compelling and appreciated. But the success of these warriors — and the armed forces as a whole — depends on discipline, standards and a justice system that the president must respect and uphold.