Congratulations are in order for Secretary of Defense Mark Esper — and the authors of the United States Constitution — over the firing of Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer. It just can’t be acceptable under the American parchment for a member of the chain of command that controls our military to be seen, as Mr. Spencer was, undercutting publicly, or privately, the constitutional commander in chief. Which is what happened in the case of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher.
Chief Gallagher was accused of murdering a war prisoner on the battlefield, and a raft of other crimes. He was acquitted of murder after another Navy special operator shocked the very prosecutors who’d called him to the stand by confessing to the deed. Gallagher was also acquitted of all the other charges laid against him except posing for a photograph with a corpse. For that, he was imprisoned for four months and demoted a rank.
President Trump reversed that demotion, as it is entirely within his constitutionally granted powers to do. He is the final authority we have in these matters. When he learned that the Navy might nonetheless try to strip Chief Gallagher of his Navy Seal trident, he issued, via Twitter, an instruction that the “Navy will NOT” be taking away “Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” He added that the case was handled badly from the beginning, which, given the acquittals, seems self-evident.
One would think that Mr. Spencer would have gotten the message. Instead, he groused about the decision. It later came out that Mr. Spencer privately proposed — without consulting his higher ups — a compromise with the White House. Mr. Esper also reckoned Mr. Spencer’s own public remarks were at odds with his private mutterings. No president or defense chief could accept that kind of behavior, and Mr. Esper demanded and promptly got Mr. Spencer’s resignation. Chief Gallagher keeps his SEALS Trident.
Meantime, the United Nations piped up, via a human rights spokesman in Geneva. Reuters quoted the spokesman as complaining about the restoration of Chief Gallagher’s rank and the pardoning of two Army officers for war crimes. In the pardons, he suggested, “no circumstances have been advanced” to suggest “anything other than simply voiding an otherwise proper process...” Reuters added that “most pardons are granted for those already convicted who have served time for a federal offence.”
Just for the record, the opposite is true. Most pardons have been issued to persons who haven’t been arrested or even charged. President Lincoln and President Andrew Johnson pardoned, in total, thousands of Confederate soldiers and President Carter used the pardon power to clear thousands of Americans who either failed to register for the draft or who’d fled to Canada and other countries in violation of the draft laws. Those pardons alone dwarf the count of pardons issued to federal convicts. They offended many officers more than Mr. Trump offended Secretary Spencer.
It’s not our purpose here to ignore the troubling evidence that was adduced against Gallagher or the importance of acting against war crimes when they occur. A long newspaper life has taught us, though, that combat clothes all sorts of facts in the fog of war. Keen judgment is often required to sort them out. This is why the Constitution lays the final decision to a civilian commander-in-chief who has been vetted by a national election and grants him powers of clemency beyond review.
Image: The Navy Seal Trident (via Wikipedia).