America Loves Excusing Its War Criminals

Bitter memories of impunity for U.S. soldiers still rankle even close allies.

In this picture taken on March 15, 2018, local resident Truong Thi Hong, 76, looks at the names of relatives killed during the My Lai massacre at the war memorial museum in Son My village, Quang Ngai province.
In this picture taken on March 15, 2018, local resident Truong Thi Hong, 76, looks at the names of relatives killed during the My Lai massacre at the war memorial museum in Son My village, Quang Ngai province. Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Images

The report that U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to pardon a number of U.S. war criminals, both accused and convicted, has sparked rightful outrage. These are not ambiguous cases: Seven former platoon members have accused one of the men, Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher, of routinely targeting women and children as a sniper in Iraq, as well as murdering a teenage captive in cold blood. Nicholas Slatten is a mercenary who is, so far, the only man convicted of a massacre of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. Trump has repeatedly expressed his support for torture and atrocity in war, though as with Trump’s previous pardons of murderers in uniform, many of those who, unlike the president, actually served in the military are particularly disgusted by the move.

But while the violence of Trump’s rhetoric is new, effective impunity for U.S. soldiers in foreign lands is not. Iraqis’ resentment of U.S. forces is obvious and violent, but the pardons will also further corrode U.S. credibility among its calmer allies. That’s especially true in East Asia, where the inequities of U.S. military justice have frequently riled locals. In South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines, among others, the perceived impunity of U.S. military personnel has turned residents against the presence of military bases, sparked mass protests, and strained diplomatic relations.

Individual violations of sovereignty, as protesters see it, drive these complaints—but they’re also tied to a wider anti-American tradition fueled by the United States’ own repeated failures to try its own soldiers fairly. Although these failures of justice took place in different countries, and at different times, they form a strong part of collective historical memory. South Korean protesters frequently refer to the U.S. massacres in Vietnam—where South Korean forces also committed atrocities —as well as to horrors committed during the Korean War itself. The gross failures of Iraq are a touchstone for those opposed to the U.S. presence across the world.

U.S. military training today goes out of its way to emphasize the laws of war and the necessity of disobeying illegal orders. Yet U.S. actions offer little reassurance that political attitudes have changed. U.S. politicians have repeatedly refused to accept the role of the International Criminal Court, and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has levied numerous threats against it. The arrogance, racism, and cheerleading for atrocity at the top of the U.S. government under Trump continue to negate any efforts to repair America’s reputation at the bottom.

None of this is the responsibility of U.S. soldiers as a group themselves, who are no better or worse than any other group of young people away from home. The root of the resentment is not their behavior but the agreements that protect them, and the frequent failure of U.S. military institutions to deliver justice. In Okinawa, the Japanese island that holds America’s key Pacific bases, they were immune from local justice until 1972 and rarely prosecuted by their own forces. “They would just hit somebody, and when they drove back to the base, through the gates, it was the same as going back to the USA,” one Okinawan told the Nation. “It’s so frustrating. You rape and kill or run over somebody and just go back?” That resentment formed the basis of a powerful anti-base movement on the island—despite the central Japanese government’s repeated attempts to crush it.

In both South Korea and Okinawa, the status of forces agreements today send U.S. personnel to military justice only when the alleged crimes are committed in performance of their duties. That has done little to dispel suspicions that the U.S. military protects its own. In Okinawa in 1995, a rape case—even though the accused were handed over to the Japanese authorities—instantly sparked rumors of a cover-up.

In South Korea in 2002, the deaths of two schoolgirls in a horrendous accident during U.S. military exercises, and the subsequent (and probably fair, from witness accounts) acquittal of the soldiers involved on negligent homicide charges by a military court, produced huge riots and a massive swelling of anti-American feeling. I was teaching in Seoul at the time, and my 10-year-old students would tell me they hated Americans because “Americans killed Shin Hyo-sun and Shim Mi-seon.”  The deaths are still commemorated by annual protests.

These emotions have practical consequences. Anti-Americanism remains a powerful force in South Korean politics, despite the looming threat of North Korea and the shield offered by U.S. troops. The building of U.S. bases on Okinawa has been frequently delayed or canceled due to opposition from locals. In the Philippines, U.S. forces were kicked out in 1991 and have been met with concerted protest and political opposition since their return in 1999.

Peacetime failures are serious enough but behind all this is also a long history of America’s failure to convict or punish its own personnel for war crimes in Asia. That goes back to the numerous atrocities committed during the occupation of the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1902, Republican Sen. George Frisbie Hoar, a vehement anti-imperialist, condemned U.S. war crimes in the Senate: “You make the American flag in the eyes of a numerous people the emblem of sacrilege in Christian churches, and of the burning of human dwellings, and of the horror of the water torture.”

Yet the men responsible for mass murder and torture received little punishment. Jacob Hurd Smith, who had ordered the revenge killing of thousands of Filipinos after 48 U.S. troops were killed in an ambush, became infamous for his instructions to kill every man over the age of 10. But while he was court-martialed, the consequence was only a quiet retirement, and other high-level perpetuators went untouched.

Vietnam was little better. While war crimes were sometimes investigated, many were swept under the carpet. To be clear, these weren’t the high-level war crimes that critics of the Vietnam War accused Washington of pursuing, such as strategic bombing of civilians, but acts of rape and murder illegal under U.S. military law—but rarely prosecuted. The men of Tiger Force, an elite unit of the U.S. Army, murdered, tortured, and mutilated their way across Vietnam’s highlands; a four-year investigation by the Army confirmed the crimes but produced no prosecutions.

After the massacre at My Lai, exposed by whistleblowers after a year of cover-ups by the U.S. Army, many Americans cried for justice—but far more enthusiastically supported the men who had murdered more than 500 Vietnamese villagers, gangraping the women and mutilating the children. Letters to the White House ran 100 to 1 in favor of the perpetrators, while polling showed 75 percent of the public backed them and just 17 percent disapproved of their actions. Twenty-six men were charged with crimes, but only one, Lt. William Calley, was convicted. Despite Calley originally receiving a life sentence, President Richard Nixon intervened to ensure he spent his time under cozy house arrest, until he finally received parole after just three and a half years in nominal confinement.

If Americans want to be seen as protectors, not oppressors, U.S. justice has to deliver in a way it has never managed in the past. Future leaders will have to seriously consider incorporating local courts into the military justice system—a solution that carries its own problems of cultural clashes and political biases, but that would go a long way to answering concerns. In the meantime, if Trump’s pardons happen, it will only reinforce the message already being heard by even America’s allies: U.S. troops can rape and murder in your country to their heart’s content, and U.S. leaders will defend them to the hilt over it.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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