Senior military officers rebel against Trump plan to pardon troops accused of war crimes

Current and former military officers urged the White House not to pardon service members and security contractors implicated in war crimes, warning that forgiving their offenses would send a dangerous signal to U.S. troops and potential adversaries.

Aides to President Trump have been examining high-profile war crimes cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, preparing paperwork so Trump could issue pardons during Memorial Day commem-orations, according to two senior U.S. officials. But that possibility has brought a flood of opposition from current and former high-ranking officers, who say it would encourage misconduct by showing that violations of laws prohibiting attacks on civilians and prisoners of war will be treated with leniency.

“Absent evidence of innocence or injustice, the wholesale pardon of U.S. service members accused of war crimes signals our troops and allies that we don’t take the law of armed conflict seriously,” retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. He added: “Bad message. Bad precedent. Abdication of moral responsibility. Risk to us.”

Cases being examined by the White House include those of Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who is charged with killing an unarmed Afghan in 2010; three Marine snipers prosecuted for urinating on the corpse of a dead Afghan fighter in 2011; and a former security guard for Blackwater who was convicted of murder in December for killing unarmed Iraqis in 2007.

Other officers warned that if U.S. personnel accused of such crimes escaped punishment, civilians on foreign battlefields would be less inclined to cooperate with U.S. forces, and U.S. service members taken prisoners would be more likely to be mistreated or even killed when taken captive.

“If President Trump issues indiscriminate pardons of individuals accused or convicted by their fellow service members of war crimes, he relinquishes the United States’ moral high ground and undermines the good order and discipline critical to winning on the battlefield,” said retired Gen. Charles Krulak, a former commandant of the Marine Corps.

Many senior officers who have not spoken out publicly are privately outraged, according to one currently serving at the Pentagon. “I think a lot of us would see it in the same way — that it’s just awful,” he said.

The possibility of that reaction inside the military could cause President Trump not to go ahead with the pardons, but he has ignored top military officers before. He has repeatedly bypassed normal procedures for issuing pardons and granting clemency, seizing on cases mentioned on Fox News or that resonate with his supporters. This month, he pardoned Army Lt. Michael Behenna, who was convicted of killing an Iraqi during questioning in 2008.

“We are talking about some of the most despicable war crimes. To even contemplate pardons in such cases is disgusting and dishonorable,” said Raha Wala, a lawyer at Human Rights First. “It’s no wonder that some of our most respected military leaders are speaking out against this, as they should.”

– edited from Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2019
PeaceMeal, May/June 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Sen. Martha McSally pushes to criminalize sexual harassment in military

Senator Martha McSally, who was sexually assaulted while serving in the Air Force, will push legislation on criminalizing sexual harassment in the ranks and ensure that each military base has a lawyer who advocates for victims.

McSally, an Arizona Republican on the Armed Services Committee and retired Air Force attack plane pilot, also said she stands by the commanders’ traditional role as the arbiter of prosecutions for sexual assault. That stance puts her on the same page as Pentagon leadership.

In March, McSally revealed during a Senate hearing that she had been raped by a superior officer and that she felt re-victimized by Air Force officials who questioned her about it. She has gone on to push the military to establish a task force charged with recommending substantive changes to the way the military combats sexual assault. The time was ripe: just a week earlier, the Pentagon announced an estimated 20,500 troops had been sexually assaulted in 2018, a 38% increase compared with 2016.

In an op-ed in USA TODAY on May 9, Elizabeth Van Winkle, who oversees the Pentagon's sexual assault prevention and response efforts, wrote that commanders make those decisions on the advice of lawyers and cannot overrule them without review by superior officers. McSally advocates maintaining that authority and ensuring commanders have the best prosecutors and investigators advising them.

She also plans to propose legislation that would criminalize sexual harassment. Troops can be prosecuted for sexual harassment under the part of military law that governs good order and discipline. The recommendation to make it a specific crime is one of the top recommendations of the task force. The risk of assault increases when sexual harassment is tolerated.

“It’s a great idea to separate and specifically criminalize sexual harassment,” McSally said. “It shows commitment to saying we’re not going to tolerate this. It also allows us to track those who have had any kind of punishment related to sexual harassment, potentially the early sign of somebody who has behavior that’s on what they call the continuum of harm.”

Another recommendation to be included in her legislation would assign lawyers known as special victims counsels to every military base. Those lawyers advocate on the victims’ behalf, she said, and having one at each installation would allow the lawyer to be on hand as soon as a report is made.

– edited from USA Today, May 11, 2019
PeaceMeal, May/June 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Young women on military bases and sailors on ships at greatest risk for sexual assault

Young women troops at training bases and sailors assigned to ships faced the highest risk of sexual assault in the military, according to a report released September 21 by the Pentagon. The release of the report had been delayed for months as the nonpartisan RAND Corp., which had been commissioned to do the study, and the Pentagon sparred over its findings and how to present them. RAND relied on data from fiscal year 2014, including responses from 170,000 active-duty troops to its survey questions; more than half a million were requested.

The report estimated the risk of sexual assault for troops assigned to each of the military’s installations based on reported attacks. The assaults may have occurred off the base, and the assailant may have been a member of the military or a civilian. The report notes that the data do not necessarily represent the risk for troops today.

Nonetheless, the report found commonalities among victims and where they are assigned by the military that continue today. For example, the factors that put victims at high risk of sexual assault — youth, not being married, and having lower rank — correspond to their assignment to large training bases and ships. Those assignments and living conditions have not changed greatly since 2014.

Reports of assaults, which range from unwanted touching to rape, clustered at a relatively few large installations for each of the services, according to the report. The Pentagon did not release details about each base studied by RAND.

An advocate for victims of sexual assault in the military blasted the Pentagon for not sharing the report sooner and not divulging more. Don Christensen, president of Protect Our Defenders and the former top prosecutor for the Air Force, said, “It’s extremely disappointing the Pentagon would delay releasing this report. The report contains never-before-seen risk estimates by installation.”

At the Navy’s highest-risk installation for women, Naval Support Activity Charleston, RAND researchers found thatwomen there faced a 17 percent risk of sexual assault in 2014. “That is, our model estimates that more than one in six women assigned to duty at that installation were sexually assaulted in FY 2014.”

The RAND report found that “ships dominate the highest-risk installations. Of the 15 highest-risk installations for Navy women, 13 are ships or clusters of ships, including eight of the ten aircraft carriers.”

The Army’s highest-risk posts for women included Ft. Huachuca in Arizona, Osan in South Korea, and Ft. Drum in New York, where the risk of being assaulted was about 5 percent to 10 percent.

For the Marine Corps, women faced the highest risk at Yuma Air Station in Arizona, 29 Palms Combat Center in California, and Beaufort Air Station in South Carolina. The risk at those bases was between 10 percent and 15 percent.

The average sexual assault risk to women across the Air Force was low compared with the other services, RAND found. The top three bases focused on undergraduate pilot training: Vance in Oklahoma, Laughlin in Texas, and Altus in Oklahoma. The risk there was about 5 percent.

The military has made progress in fighting sexual assault, according to the Pentagon. Sexual-assault rates for active-duty men and women in 2016 decreased significantly from rates last measured in 2014. They are at the lowest levels since 2006.

For the year ending Sept. 30, 2017, the military recorded 6,769 reports of sexual assault, an increase of nearly 10 percent from 2016, when there were 6,172.

The military has long struggled with addressing sexual assault among troops. Following a spike in sexual assaults from 2010 to 2012, Congress legislated changes in how the military prosecutes sex crimes and cares for victims.

– edited from USA Today, September 21, 2018
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Pentagon gets huge raise in new spending plan

WASHINGTON – The budget bill that President Donald Trump signed on February 9 includes huge spending increases for the military. The Pentagon will get $94 billion more this budget year than last — a 15.5 percent jump. It’s the biggest budget the Pentagon has ever seen: $700 billion. That’s more than twice the combined defense spending of America’s two nearest competitors, China and Russia. And next year it will rise to $716 billion.

The two-year deal provides what Defense Secretary James Mattis says is needed to pull the military out of a slump in combat readiness at a time of renewed focus on the stalemated conflict in Afghanistan and the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula. It’s the biggest year-over-year increase for the Pentagon since the budget soared by 26.6 percent in 2002, when the nation was fighting in Afghanistan, invading Iraq and expanding national defense after the 9/11 attacks.

The extra money is not targeted at countering a new enemy or a singular threat like al-Qaida extremists or the former Soviet Union. Instead it is being sold as a fix for a broader set of prob-lems, including a deficit of training, a purported need for more high-tech missile defenses, and the start of a complete moderniza-tion of U.S. nuclear weapons and delivery systems.

Since 2011, when Congress passed a law setting firm limits on military and domestic spending, every secretary of defense has complained that the spending caps were squeezing the military so hard that troops were not getting enough training, the number of combat-ready units was dwindling, and aging equipment was stacking up. Yet even with the spending caps, the defense budget of recent years has been robust by historical standards.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget specialist at the Center for Security and International Studies, said military funding has been near the inflation-adjusted peak levels of the armed forces buildup during the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan — the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. The problem, Harrison said, is that the budgets have been stretched by rising personnel costs, more expensive technology investments and other factors, compounded by the cumulative effects of the unending years of combat in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

“We are stretched too thin,” Harrison said. “"We are trying to do too much with the size force that we have all around the world. Money doesn’t necessarily fix that.”

The U.S. has far fewer troops in Iraq than it did 10 years ago, and the roughly 15,000 troops in Afghanistan today compare with a peak of 100,000 in 2010-11, but the trend is leaning in the opposite direction under President Trump, including stepped-up counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen. Trump has added several thousand troops in Afghanistan. Also, the prospect of war against North Korea looms large as Trump insists on compelling the North to give up its nuclear weapons.

The increases in defense spending even go beyond what Trump asked for. Of the $700 million in spending for the 2018 budget year that started October 1, about $629 billion is for core Pentagon operations and nearly $71 billion is for the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Trump had requested a 2018 military budget of $603 billion for basic functions and $65 billion for war missions.

The biggest winners in the military buildup are the country’s largest defense contractors, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics, that spend millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress.

The legislation that Trump signed is expected to translate to billions more for one of the Pentagon’s highest priorities: ballistic missile defense. The bill included money for as many as 28 additional Ground-Based Interceptors in underground silos in Alaska — anti-missile missiles that, after decades of development, still don’t work.

– edited from The Associated Press, February 9, 2018
PeaceMeal, March/April 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Lies we tell ourselves about the military

Maj. Danny Sjursen.jpg (3541 bytes)Maj. Danny Sjursen, U.S. Army

Seven of my soldiers are dead. Two committed suicide. Bombs got the others in Iraq and Afghanistan. One young man lost three limbs. Another is paralyzed. I entered West Point a couple of months before 9/11. Eight of my classmates died “over there.”

Military service, war, sacrifice: When I was 17, I felt sure this would bring me meaning, adulation, even glory. It went another way. Sixteen years later, my generation of soldiers is still ensnared in an indecisive, unfulfilling series of losing wars: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Niger — who even keeps count anymore? Sometimes, I wonder what it’s all been for.

I find it hard to believe I’m the only one who sees it, but you hear few dissenting voices among the veterans of the “global war on terror.” See, soldiers are all “professionals” now, at least since Richard Nixon ditched the draft in 1973. Mostly the troops — especially the officers — uphold an unwritten code, speak in esoteric vernacular and hide behind a veil of reticence.

Maybe it’s necessary to keep the machine running. I used to believe that. Sometimes, though, we tell you lies. We tell them to each other and ourselves as well. Consider just three:

1. Soldiers don’t fight (or die) for king, country or apple pie. They do it for each other, for teammates and friends. Think Henry V’s “band of brothers.” In that sense, the troops can never be said to die for nothing.

No disrespect to the fallen, but this framework is a slippery- slope formula for forever war. Imagine the dangerous inverse of this logic: If no soldiers’ lives can be wasted, no matter how ill-advised the war, then the mere presence of U.S. “warriors” and deaths of American troops justifies any war, all war. But two things can be true at once: American servicemen can die for no good reason and may well have fought hard and honorably with/for their mates. The one does not preclude the other.

Unfortunately, it seems Americans are in for (at least) three more years of this increasingly bellicose — and perilous — rhetoric. We saw it when Sean Spicer, President Trump’s former press secretary, had the gall to declare that questioning the success of a botched January raid in Yemen “does a disservice” to the Navy SEAL killed in the firefight. It got worse from there. Trump tweeted that a certain senator — Vietnam veteran John McCain, of all people — who talked about “the success or failure of the mission” to the media had “emboldened the enemy.” According to this fabled logic, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens died for his brothers-in-arms, and thus to even ponder the “what-for” is tantamount to abetting the enemy.

2. We have to fight “them”—terrorists, Arabs, Muslims, whomever—“over there” so we don’t end up fighting them “over here.”

In fact, the opposite is likely true. Detailed State Department statistics demonstrate that international terrorist attacks numbered just 346 in 2001 versus 11,072 worldwide in 2016. That’s a cool 3,100 percent increase. Sure, the vast majority of those attacks occurred overseas, mostly suffered by civilians across the Mideast.

Domestic attacks also have risen since the U.S. launched its “war on terror.” From 1996 to 2000 (pre-9/11), an average of 5.6 people were killed annually in terror attacks within the United States. Now fast-forward 15 years. From 2012 to 2016, an average of 32.2 people died at the hands of terrorists here in the U.S. Since 2001, lethal attacks on the U.S. homeland have proliferated.

Furthermore, from 2005 to 2015, 66 percent of terrorism fatalities in the U.S. were not perpetrated by Islamist groups. Besides, domestic mass shootings (in this case defined as four or more victims killed or wounded in a single event) are far more dangerous, with 1,072 incidents from 2013 to 2015. No doubt we’d hear more about these attacks if the culprits were a bit browner and named Ali or Abdullah.

It appears that U.S. military action may even be making matters worse. Take Africa, for instance. Prior to 9/11, few American troops patrolled that continent, and there were few recognized anti-U.S. threat groups in the region. Nonetheless, President George W. Bush (and later Barack Obama) soon sent more and more U.S. special forces to “advise and assist” across Africa. By 2017, al-Qaida and Islamic State-linked factions had multiplied and were killing American troops. It all seems counterproductive.

Let’s review: The threat from terrorism is minuscule, is not even majority “Islamic,” pales in comparison with domestic mass shooting deaths, and has not measurably decreased since 9/11. Remind me again how fighting “them there” saves soldiers from having to fight “them here?”

3. Americans are obliged to honor the troops. They fight for our freedom. Actively opposing the war(s) dishonors their sacrifice.

This is illogical and another surefire way to justify perpetual war. Like the recent NFL national anthem debate, such rhetoric serves mostly as a distraction. First off, it’s abstract and absurd to argue that U.S. troops engaged in the sprawling “war on terror” are dying to secure American freedom. After all, these are wars of choice, “away-games” conducted offensively in distant lands, with dubious allies and motives. All this fighting, killing and dying receives scant public debate and is legally “sanctioned” by a 16-year-old congressional authorization.

All this “don’t dishonor the troops” nonsense is as old as war itself. These sorts of “stab-in-the-back” myths were heard in post-Vietnam America. You know the shtick: The soldiers could’ve won, should’ve won, if only they hadn’t been stabbed in the back by politicians, and so on.

Let’s not forget, however, that the First Amendment sanctifies the citizenry’s right to dissent. Those who claim peaceful protest dishonors or undermines “the soldiers” don’t want an engaged populace. Those folks prefer obedient automatons, replete with “thanks for your service” platitudes and yellow ribbons plastered on car bumpers. As for me, I’ll take an engaged, thoughtful electorate over free Veterans Day meals at the local Texas Roadhouse any day.

The half-truths, comfortable fictions and outright lies are more than a little dangerous. They are affecting the next generation of young Americans. For instance, a full decade and two wars after I graduated, I taught history at West Point. Best job I ever had. My first crop of freshman cadets will graduate in May. They’re impressive young men and women. They’re mostly believers (for that, I envy them), ready to kick ass and wipe the floor with Islamic State or whomever. No one really tells them of the quagmires and disappointments that lie ahead. A few of us try, but we’re the outliers. Most cadets are unreachable. It has always been this way.

Truthfully, I surmise, it wouldn’t matter anyway. There’s a romance to it. I felt the tug once, too. Some of my students will excel, and 10 years from now, they’ll come back to West Point and mentor cadets en route to the same ugly places, the same never-ending wars. Those kids, mind you, will have been born a decade after 9/11. Thinking on this near certainty, I want to throw up. But make no mistake: It will be so.

A system of this sort — one that produces and exalts generations of hopeless soldiers — requires millions of individual lies and necessitates discarding inconvenient truths.

Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. His article is edited from Truthdig, November 15, 2017.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Breaking the militarism mindset: The Pentagon budget

Friends Committee on National Legislation

Militarism is embedded deeply in our country and culture. The size of the Pentagon budget is just one manifestation of that mindset and the problems it causes.

Today, U.S. taxpayers are giving as much money to the military as they did during the height of the Vietnam War. The Pentagon budget rivals military spending in the last years of the Cold War, and members of Congress are going to give the Pentagon even more, unless we can change their minds.

President Trump is expected to ask for $716 billion in defense spending when he unveils his 2019 budget in February — an increase of more than 7 percent over the 2018 budget. The proposed budget would be about $50 billion more than 2017.

These budget increases reflect a militaristic mindset in the federal government. Any time a new national security challenge arises, the default instinct of far too many in Washington D.C. has been to mindlessly reach first for military power to respond.

 Members of Congress and their staffs hear practically every day from all manner of Pentagon officials and from the legions of defense contractor lobbyists who swarm Capitol Hill. They hear a lot of stories about why Pentagon spending needs to keep growing, regardless of the fact that U.S. military spending already exceeds that of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea combined.

Congressional members and staff will claim that taxpayer spending on the military is a key source of jobs in their districts and states. In fact, dollar-for-dollar, military spending is less effective at creating jobs than spending on education, health care or clean energy, according to a study by Brown University.

The truth is that the Pentagon wastes much of what taxpayers give it. Misuse of Pentagon funds is so rampant that, when the Pentagon itself conducted an internal study, it identified $125 billion in potential savings over five years.

So long as we keep funding military strategies at the expense of other approaches, the military strategies will seem like the only option. Taking on militarism requires cutting off the taxpayer dollars that enable it to flourish. That’s why Congress and the president need to hear from all of us. If we aren’t out there reminding our elected representatives of some of these facts, then we really can’t count on anyone else to say them either.

– edited from the FCNL Washington Newsletter, Dec. 2017
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)