“I would just say there is one misperception of our veterans and that is they are somehow damaged goods. I don’t buy it.”
So said retired Marine Corps general Jim Mattis during remarks at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco in 2014. The line strikes a chord with us, as we’re sure it would with the great majority of veterans with whom we served. We’ve all, by and large, been trying simply to navigate the sometimes challenging transition to civilian life — finishing school, finding a good job, raising a family — without the added challenge of being perceived by our peers as “damaged goods,” “ticking time bombs” or “killing machines.”
While no president could ever shake our pride in our military service, we fear that President Donald Trump’s recent decision to pardon two service members involved in war crimes cases and reverse disciplinary action against another — and his stated motives for doing so — will damage Americans’ perception of the military, encouraging the view that veterans are “broken.”
On Thursday, the president showed fresh contempt for the professional judgment of military officers, tweeting “The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s Trident Pin.” The Navy had intended to oust Gallagher from the SEALs for, among other things, his conviction at court-martial for posing in a photograph with the corpse of a 17-year-old captive Islamic State fighter.
Our generation of post-9/11 veterans has been relatively fortunate. We returned home from war to an overwhelmingly supportive country — majorities of veterans and the public say most Americans look up to people who have served in the military. That is to be celebrated. But the positive view hasn’t always been the case, and we should not take it for granted.
In 1981, in the shadow of the Vietnam War, confidence in the military as an institution hovered around 50 percent. It didn’t recover until after the 1991 Gulf War, and then continued to rise after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Today, even as the war in Afghanistan nears the end of its second decade, more than 70 percent of Americans express confidence in the military — a higher level than for any other American institution, according to Gallup. The president’s pardoning of those who dishonored the uniform threatens to erode this high level of confidence.
Earlier this year, commenting on the case of Army Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn, who was scheduled to be tried for murder next year, the president tweeted, “we train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” In November 2018, he commented on the case of a mass shooting suspect in Thousand Oaks, California, who had served in the Marines: “He was in the war … they come back, they’re never the same.” And last Friday, the White House’s official statement on the pardons said the president just wants to give members of the military “the confidence to fight.”
These comments don’t reflect the truth about the military in which we served. The soldiers and Marines we led in Afghanistan were filled with confidence, and while they were well-versed in infantry tactics, we did not transform them into so-called killing machines. We trained them to be disciplined and proficient, and to take seriously their responsibilities.
There is a difference between giving a soldier the benefit of the doubt and excusing unacceptable and illegal acts. (One of the pardon recipients is former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, who was serving a 19-year sentence after being convicted of second-degree murder in 2013 for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three men in Afghanistan. Nine soldiers in his platoon testified against him.)
The U.S. military is given a unique charge: the right to kill on behalf of the state. Exercising that right, though, must be done in a manner consistent with the nation’s ideals. With only rare exceptions, members of the well-trained and professional U.S. military execute their missions with honor. For the few who don’t, the armed services must be allowed to hold them accountable.
When Mattis spoke in San Francisco five years ago, rejecting the “damaged goods” label for veterans, he also said, “If we tell our veterans enough that this is what is wrong with them, they may actually start believing it.” For now, we remain confident that most of our fellow veterans will continue to reject this label. But we are disappointed that the commander in chief is now perpetuating the caricature of the broken veteran and endorsing a cynical view of what it means to support the troops and those who have served.
Joseph Kristol is a former Marine Corps officer. Stephen Petraeus is a former Army officer. Both served combat tours in Afghanistan as infantry platoon leaders.