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What would George Washington have done?

A portrait of George Washington, the 1st President

A portrait of George Washington, the 1st President of the United States of America, circa 1790. Credit: Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Army First Lt. Clint Lorance was tried and convicted of murder and other crimes by a military court with some members of his platoon testifying against him as an overzealous and out-of-control leader who had two unarmed civilians machine gunned and then lied to cover up his crime.

Army Major Mathew Golsteyn was awaiting trial on the charge that he murdered and then burned the body of an Afghanistan civilian whom he suspected of being a bomb maker.

Special Warfare Operator First Class Edward Gallagher, acquitted of the charge of murdering a civilian while deployed in Iraq, was found guilty of posing for a picture with the corpse.

President Donald Trump, taking the advice of "Fox & Friends" while ignoring the counsel of his own secretary of defense and other military leaders, pardoned those convicted of war crimes, and the charges against Golsteyn were dismissed. 

During the Korean War, I taught military law at the Provost Marshal General School. In pardoning convicted war criminals who violated the Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention, Trump’s actions were not, as he and Fox News seem to think, in the best interests of the military or America. Just the opposite. 

It invites other nations to treat our deployed troops by the same standards and it debases our system of military justice allowing our military and others to think that war crimes committed by our troop will go unpunished — indeed praised — by our commander in chief. Another negative was testified to by a member of Lorance’ s platoon: “by his [Lorance s] actions, based on our experience, having operated in that area for months, were going to breed further insurgency. If you kill local citizens, they're no longer willing to help you."

I work with fellow veterans every day — veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and although I am certain that there are those who think the president acted appropriately with respect to these pardons, I have yet to meet a single one.

In his recent rally in Kentucky, Trump told an adoring crowd that “the great Lou Dobbs” of Fox News “has me down as the greatest president in the history of our country, including George Washington.” Which prompts the question: What would George Washington do if one of  his soldiers abused non-combatants or prisoners of war ?

During the Revolutionary War, more than 11,000 captured Americans died of torture and disease aboard 16 British ships in Brooklyn Harbor. After his victory at Trenton, following the bitter winter at Valley Forge, the weary and half-starved Continental troops were in the process of seeking revenge on the British and Hessians who had treated the Americans so harshly. Washington intervened:

“Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands.” 

Washington went further. He cautioned his troops:

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [of them] . . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause … for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”

It is a good thing that history is the judge of the character and wisdom of President Washington and not "Fox & Friends."

Sol Wachtler, a former chief judge of New York State, is distinguished adjunct professor at Touro Law School.

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