War does indeed inflame the passions, giving rise to opportunities and pressures to do things that are truly horrible. It might seem strange to say that it is ok to kill but not that way or not right now or not this person, but we have long had laws of war that defined many behaviors as criminal. Aside from the morality of this stuff, these laws are also important for operating armed forces. To have the many soldiers, marines, sailors and aviators do what is expected, they must face the possibility of being punished for behaving in undesirable ways. That is what is meant by order and discipline being threatened by Trump's pardons--that American troops will not face consequences for disobeying lawful orders, at least in the judicial system, and this will create a permissive environment for those in the armed forces to do bad things.
Yes, some do bad things already--some American troops shot prisoners of war in cold blood even in the Good War while others raped their away across Europe, that massacres happened in Vietnam, and elsewhere. And, yes, many American servicewomen and men will be restrained by their own moral code and by the disapproval of their peers. BUT the American president is saying that it is ok to engage in war crimes. Just like his use of racism and xenophobia in his speeches make it easier for those to come out and be racist and hateful in public and engage in violence against those targeted by the President, Trump's pardoning of war criminals will encourage some troops to engage in horrible acts.
We should be trying to reduce, not increase, the likelihood that US troops will engage in awful behavior. Trump, well, that's not what he does. He makes it possible for people to do bad things. His cabinet has been given the green light to engage in corruption. His immigration officials, from John Kelly to Kirstjen Nielsen to whoever's next, have been given the greenlight to abuse immigrants. Now, the US armed forces are being given the green light to engage in war crimes.
What will the senior military leadership do now? Will they condone this massive shift in what is expected from their troops? Will they worry about discipline? Will they speak out against this?
Yes, this deepens the crisis we have in civilian-military relations in several ways:
- The US military leadership may have to speak out against the President on this--which is not good.
- The US military leadership may not speak out on this, in which case they will be seen by many civilians as being complicit. Not good.
- It may cause many within the US military who care a great deal about obeying the laws of war to have contempt for their president. Not good.
- Those thinking of joining the military might think twice because they may not want to be in a position where they are ordered to commit war crimes, which is now easier to imagine. Not good.
Trump swore an oath to faithfully execute the laws of the US. Abusing the pardon power would seem to be a violation of this and would be, yes, an impeachable offense, would it not?