You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The War Criminals I Have Known

Trump's clemencies were not just to exonerate three trigger-pullers, but to excuse all Americans.

Troops of the 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division fire shots at three Iraqi men in a field who started running, on May 16, 2008, in Baghdad. Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The lower-ranking accused war criminals I’ve known all struck me as really nice guys, right up until it seemed they weren’t. That’s war for you. Things are fine until they’re not, and then after that someone is probably dead, and everyone left alive thinks about it for the rest of their lives. 

Jonathan Keefe was one of my middle school friends in Yorktown, Virginia. I recall a sleepover at another friend’s house that found us rappelling out of a second-story window in order to sneak over to another sleepover and meet up with girls. He became a star swimmer in high school and then a Navy SEAL in Iraq, where he was on the team that captured Ahmed Hashim Abed, the “Butcher of Fallujah,” who coordinated the fatal 2004 attacks on four American Blackwater mercenaries, dragging the men’s burned bodies through the streets before hanging them in a public display and triggering one of the fiercest battles of that war.

It was a battle with a toxic legacy for the Iraqi people—the depleted uranium in American ammunition made Fallujah one of the world leaders in birth defects—and for my school friend Keefe, who, along with two of his SEAL shipmates, was accused and then acquitted of beating Abed in custody. Other SEALs on the Abed capture defended their shipmates at the court-martial, including Carl Higbie, who would blame the investigation on the Obama White House and later claimed the unique distinction of being fired from the Trump administration for being too racist. Jon left the Navy and now works as a private contractor; I still like Jon. Carl, whom I’ve never met but used to encounter on Twitter, not so much.

In January 2007, after 12 months in Afghanistan, my battalion was extended for four months, and I got a new job, promoted to company radio operator. At Forward Operating Base Orgun-e, I would run into a battalion mate named Cal Gibbs in the dining hall or motor pool. It was easy to remember Gibbs—he is a tall, handsome all-American type from Billings, Montana—as one of the squared-away soldiers on the battalion commander’s personal security detachment.

Two years later, I was stationed in Virginia and coming unglued from a case of 16-months-in-a-combat-zone post-traumatic stress. Gibbs went back to Afghanistan, deploying to Forward Operating Base Ramrod with another unit as a squad leader. There, his soldiers got to know a different Gibbs from the squared-away soldier I remembered. According to Army appellate court records, Gibbs “resented not only the Taliban and enemy insurgents, but Afghans in general.” He called them savages, “believing they should be killed.… [His] hatred eventually led him to discuss the prospect of murdering unarmed Afghans.”

On January 15, 2010, in the village of La Muhammad Kalay, two of Gibbs’s soldiers beckoned to an Afghan man working in a field. As the man stood 20 feet away, behind a waist-high wall, one of Gibbs’s soldiers threw a grenade that Gibbs had procured off the books, killing the Afghan man, who’d displayed no hostile intent. Gibbs ran toward the sound of the blast, searched the corpse, and cut off one of the Afghan man’s fingers, which he gave to the kill-team soldier as a trophy. “Well, you know, no problem. You did a good job. You did exactly what we talked about,” Gibbs told his soldier.

It was, by any definition, a war crime. A court-martial convicted Gibbs of three specifications of conspiracy (one to commit premeditated murder, one to commit battery, and one to commit aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon); three specifications of premeditated murder; assault consummated by battery; aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon; wrongful possession of bones and a tooth taken from Afghan corpses; wrongful solicitation of another to cut the finger off a corpse; two specifications of obstruction of justice; two specifications of dereliction of duty; and failure to obey a lawful general order. He remains in Fort Leavenworth prison on a life sentence; the Army appellate court upheld the sentence in June 2018.

It is hard for me to see much difference between the crimes of Gibbs and his kill-team and those of the two soldiers and one sailor the president just pardoned, other than the fact that Gibbs is still locked up and these guys aren’t. But again, that’s war for you. It’s random and unfair. It’s also hard for me to see why I should be any more upset about these men’s crimes than the criminal decisions of their leaders: What’s the difference between a soldier’s extrajudicial killing of an Afghan civilian with a grenade and a president’s extrajudicial killing of an American child with a drone? What’s the point of holding someone in uniform accountable for abusing a prisoner in Fallujah, when we’ll never hold anyone in the depleted uranium ammunition sales division accountable for abusing a whole generation of Iraqi children? 

Sometimes—as I saw firsthand covering the trial of Bowe Bergdahl for a book that would be named American Cipher—the only difference is in how we, the American public, see it back here in the States. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit,” my Bible tells me. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” In this case, it is by fruit-loops’ support of Trump’s pardon decisions that I can know them. These pardons were not just to exonerate the three men of their war crimes, but to exonerate everyone, all of us, of our war crimes—especially those Americans who have never seen war, but loudly support its supposed virtues.

“Thank you Pete. Our great warfighters must be allowed to fight. I would not have done this for Sgt. Bergdahl or Chelsea Manning!” Trump tweeted over the weekend to Fox and Friends host Pete Hegseth—a longtime Republican operative and military astroturfer who once vied to run Trump’s Department of Veterans Affairs. On air and on Twitter, Hegseth had been among the most vocal advocates of presidential pardons for the three men; after hours, he lobbied Trump privately, directly, to erase their war crimes. Hegseth had just tweeted out a link to a Fox News piece on the clemency, “God Bless our President and Commander-in-Chief @realDonaldTrump. A HERO for our warfighters.”

I wonder why Hegseth, a man with five Jerusalem crosses tattooed on his right pectoral, would identify with and champion the men Trump pardoned. A Princeton graduate and former Bear Stearns banker whose right biceps sports a tattoo of a black and white American flag that fades into a tricked-out M4 silhouette, Hegseth planted his warrior seed as an infantry lieutenant in the National Guard, where his first job was guarding prisoners in Guantanamo. Prison guards, of course, are best known for their humanity—particularly those who are graduates of elite educational institutions.    

I have nothing but respect for the commendable military service of Hegseth, whose right deltoid features a full-color tattoo of his unit’s shoulder sleeve insignia. He earned two Army Commendation Medals and a Bronze Star, which all mean something, I suppose. I earned three Army Commendation Medals. One of them was for 16 months of service in war; another was for organizing an annual competition of drill sergeants at Fort Monroe.

Fort Monroe was an Army post whose prison once held Confederate President Jefferson Davis after the Civil War. This was Davis’s second time under Army arrest; the first was when he was put under house arrest at West Point for his role in the Eggnog Riot, in which dozens of cadets’ love of booze tore the Army’s premiere educational institution asunder in 1826. As a soldier Davis was, oddly enough, better to civilians in his care than any of the men Trump pardoned: Chief Black Hawk noted that as his escort to prison, Davis treated him with much kindness and care. Trump cannot posthumously pardon Jefferson Davis; Jimmy Carter already did that, following Gerald Ford’s restoration of Robert E. Lee’s U.S. citizenship. Both those amnesties “benefited from the urge for national reconciliation that followed the divisions of Vietnam and Watergate,” wrote Hamilton College history professor Francis MacDonnell. (Carter also pardoned Vietnam-era draft dodgers.)

What sort of urge drives these pardons? What sort of reconciliation—and with whom—is made possible by extending these men clemency? Why would Hegseth identify with such an aggressively mediocre representative of Mars, the war god, as Lt. Clint Lorance? Why does Hegseth have “We the People” tattooed on his right forearm?

There’s an old saw that military justice is to justice as military music is to music. It is fascinating to see who’s tapping their feet along with this decision. Former Florida Congressman Allen West was, according to a press release, “Elated that President Trump has brought justice to Army First Lieutenant Clint Lor[a]nce, Army Major Matthew Golsteyn, and Special Warfare Operator First Class Edward R. Gallagher.” The same press release noted that West had lobbied for the release of Lorance since 2013.

West was allowed to retire from the Army as a lieutenant colonel shortly after he was relieved of duty and stripped of command of his field artillery battalion in the first year of the Iraq War. In what the future one-term congressman described as an interrogation, West ordered four of his soldiers to beat an Iraqi prisoner in their custody who wouldn’t talk. When that failed to produce results, West, commander of the 2nd/20th Field Artillery—whose motto remains “Deep Strike: Duty Not Reward”—drew his 9 mm Beretta service pistol and pointed it at the prisoner’s head. When that didn’t produce results, the future Fox News contributor fired a round, intentionally missing, in an attempt to coerce information from the Iraqi man in his custody. 

Like Gallagher, Lorance, and Golsteyn, West became a cause célèbre among a certain set, with 95 members of Congress signing a letter to the secretary of the Army praising his actions and demanding leniency. The Army held a preliminary criminal inquest for West and determined the charges were serious enough to fine him $5,000. He retired, with full rank and pension, in 2004. His security clearance intact, West landed a job in Afghanistan as a civilian contractor for MPRI, where he was an adviser to the Afghan National Army; between shifts instructing Afghans on the finer points of counterinsurgency, he wrote a weekly “Column From Kandahar” for Pamela Gellar’s right-wing, Islamophobic “Atlas Shrugged” blog. West next decided to enter politics as a Tea Party conservative, in 2010 becoming the first African American congressman from Florida since reconstruction. He lost reelection in 2012 in what was, at the time, the most expensive congressional race in American history.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? In his classic post-Vietnam text On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Dr. Norman F. Dixon recalls a post–World War II study of personality traits common among members of the Nazi SS. They were not ideological fanatics, as one might suspect, “but inadequate ‘little’ men for whom all the satisfactions provided by the SS organization were tailor-made—all-powerful father figures, rigid rules of loyalty and obedience, and ‘legitimate’ outlets for their hitherto pent-up and murderous hostility.”

With Trump’s latest pardons, maybe the United States is in fact undertaking a reconciliation with the “little” men and women of America who support the troops but know nothing of the war. For people who believe fervently in that passage repeated in the Gospels—“A good tree cannot bear bad fruit”—and who further believe that American wars must necessarily make good trees, the answer is simple: All the fruit must be good. Make it so—by edict, if you must. Everyone can congratulate themselves for rendering patriotic honors, and get back to the business at hand without questioning the more general war crimes of the past 20 years. Washington’s idea of looking at its warriors and wars is best typified in a just-concluded Kennedy Center exhibition of George W. Bush’s “Displays of Courage”: 66 of the former president’s creepy serial-killer-style painted portraits of soldiers maimed in the wars he started. Like Bush, Trump paints a false scene of American war and its war fighters, resplendent in their glory. It is an anamorphosis of what I know of war, a picture I can’t see myself or my war experience clearly in, and I’m glad for that.