Last weekend, for the first time ever, a long-term cease-fire deal in America’s longest-ever war went into effect. But on Sunday evening, viewers of 60 Minutes, America’s premier weekly news digest, were treated to a friendly interview with a war criminal who was pardoned by Donald Trump and now has an apparel line.
By any measure, the big national security news last week was that the United States, Afghanistan, and the Taliban signed a peace agreement that rapidly returns U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to Obama-era numbers, with an eye toward full withdrawal by fall of 2021. In return, the Taliban have vowed to cut ties with international terror groups and join the national political process. The cease-fire, struck Saturday in Qatar, is a consummate compromise, one that leaves all signatories bloodied and skeptical. To the chagrin of embattled Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose main opponent in a recent disputed election has formed a parallel government, the agreement requires Kabul to release some 5,000 Taliban prisoners from captivity. (Once upon a time, Republicans demanded the hide of a Democratic president for freeing one-thousandth as many Taliban prisoners in exchange for a single wayward American soldier.)
While members of the national security managerial class put aside their political differences to deride the accord as a dangerous step for the U.S., many more Americans have wearied of a war that has cost 2,300 American and nearly 50,000 Afghan lives. “At least three times over the past 19 years … the U.S. could have had such a deal, on terms at least as favorable to Washington as the one reached now, and likely better,” the Daily Beast’s Spencer Ackerman wrote last weekend, and he was right. Better late than never, but it still took 18 years and a conceited prig in the White House to reverse the natsec consensus against peace.
The agreement is a small, significant step toward peace, but the path forward is unclear. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t work for 60 Minutes: There’s no consensus view on it, so there’s no way to prepackage it in 12 minutes of lenswork.
On convicted (and pardoned) war criminal Eddie Gallagher, counterintuitive as it may seem, news directors seem to hold a consensus opinion: He makes damn good TV. It was made explicit in the opening narration of the 60 Minutes segment by David Martin, CBS’s longtime “big picture” reporter of national security news: “The trial of Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher was a riveting courtroom drama, in which a decorated warfighter with four combat tours faced life in prison for crimes prosecutors said he committed on the battlefield.” SEAL … riveting drama … decorated warfighter … prosecutors said. Martin then began the interview by saying, “People either love you as an American hero ...” Gallagher finished his thought: “or despise me.” That’s TV gold. One suspects that if Gallagher didn’t exist, NCIS, CBS’s other undead television franchise, would have to create him.
Gallagher, a member of the mythologized Navy SEALs, was accused of a good many crimes of war, before and after the time in 2014 that he allegedly tried to run over a Navy police officer during a traffic stop. But the one that stuck was his sharing of a 2017 photograph in which he posed over a dead teen who’d been pulled, still alive, from a suspected Islamic State fighting position. Teammates say Gallagher murdered the teen; Gallagher says he gave the teen first aid, but he asphyxiated. A video from the incident shows Gallagher handling the still-howling teen roughly, before the feed was cut by a platoon mate.
“That’s a trophy photo if I ever saw one,” Martin told Gallagher, considering the photo of him stooping triumphantly over the much smaller boy’s corpse. (The photo is disturbing, but I strongly recommend you look at it, to understand what’s being defended.) “Yeah, that’s what it was taken as,” Gallagher replied. “I know how bad it looks when it gets out in the public, which it was never supposed to”—a response that subtly invokes Gallagher’s social media campaign against the teammates who reported his misconduct: Snitches get stitches.
“It looked even worse,” Martin said in a voice-over, when Gallagher texted the photo to “a buddy” with the message: “Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.”
It is a testament to America’s ingrained worship of battlefield malice that Gallagher’s confident defense is: I didn’t kill the boy. I just claimed his corpse as a hunting trophy. That’s just toughness. “That’s war,” he said on 60 Minutes. “That’s, uh, he was out there trying to kill us.”
The segment detailed the many abuses allegedly borne by Gallagher in his trial, which was undoubtedly a botch job by the prosecution. But CBS ignored the broad consensus among Gallagher’s platoon mates that, over multiple deployments in a decade, Gallagher had targeted civilians and put his team in unnecessary danger—and instead framed it as a sort of sibling rivalry in wartime. “They may look like a band of brothers,” Martin said of the SEALs, “but some of them hated Gallagher.”
But Martin barely considers why they hated him. Gallagher, his teammates repeatedly alleged, fired a machine gun indiscriminately into neighborhoods, trying to start firefights. He boasted to them about sniping civilians, including women. There was “a girl in a flower-print hijab,” The New York Times reported, who was dragged away by her friends, bleeding from her stomach. (Gallagher was confirmed to have killed another girl in Afghanistan in 2010 while engaging an insurgent, an incident in which he was cleared of wrongdoing.) There was “an unarmed man in a white robe with a wispy white beard” another day. SEALs had reported him often and been brushed off just as often. When they reported the Iraqi civilian’s death, they were told by superiors that the report could end their careers. So they resorted to other measures. Some platoon mates told prosecutors “that they tampered with his sniper rifle to make it less accurate, and fired warning shots to scare away civilians before the chief had a chance to shoot them.” Little of that is discussed in the 60 Minutes segment, which deals only cursorily with Trump’s extension of clemency to Gallagher and Gallagher’s subsequent campaign support for Trump’s reelection.
For those with moral compasses that still point north, there is more bravery and heroism in the cessation of violence in Afghanistan than there is in Gallagher’s story. But Americans demand victory, not just peace, and so we become adept at turning terrible human failures into triumphs. “Hate the war, love the warrior,” they say. Television has the power to change this ossified norm into something more illuminating and transformative, but it rarely does. In fact, television producers find it easier to love even the worst warrior than to hate the longest war.
War is still over, if you want it. But the truth is that many news producers are less mindful of John Lennon’s advice than that of the wistful, war-loving Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. “Someday,” he says, sniffing the napalm and worrying about a violence-free future, “this war is gonna end.” Where will TV find its war heroes then?