Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts President Trump Should Not Pardon Soldiers Convicted of War Crimes
President Trump Should Not Pardon Soldiers Convicted of War Crimes

President Trump Should Not Pardon Soldiers Convicted of War Crimes

Much has been written in recent days regarding President Trump’s intention to pardon U.S. military commanders convicted of committing serious offenses in Iraq and Afghanistan. We add our voices to the significant criticism by focusing on the notion of accountability, and especially on the consequences of not holding soldiers accountable for their actions. We approach this issue from distinct perspectives— one of us is an academic psychologist who studies violence (Vaillancourt), the other a law professor (Guiora) who served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for 20 years, and was deeply involved in teaching soldiers the principles of morality in armed conflict.[1] When Guiora’s son was inducted into the IDF, he wished him four things: 1) commanders who understand command; 2) fellow soldiers who have “each other’s back”; 3) that he will know how to take care of himself; and 4) that he will never lose his moral compass. On the day he was inducted, he held up four fingers, signaling their importance.

In condemning Mr. Trump’s decision, we do not minimize the harm and risk encountered by military soldiers in combat. Quite the opposite. Precisely because we recognize and respect the extraordinary danger faced by those in harm’s way, we raise our hands and say, “Mr. President, this is a terrible decision.”

The interaction between consequences and accountability is at the root of our opposition. Any individual who feels emboldened to act with impunity, without being held accountable, will, in the overwhelming majority of instances, feel unharnessed. This applies to human nature, regardless of the conduct in question. Although rarely acknowledged, under the right conditions, most people are capable of cruelty. History is replete with such examples. Thankfully, not all acts of cruelty encompass violations of human rights that involve life and death decisions.

The essence of military command is leadership under extreme circumstances. The traditional model of war between states, with soldiers combatting soldiers in accordance with established laws of war, has given way to a murky and amorphous concept of conflict between states and non-state actors. Traditional rules and norms are under threat because the very nature of conflict has become unclear; this lack of clarity comes primarily from the fact that nation-states are often not engaged in war with “traditional” soldiers but rather with—pick your favorite term—illegal combatants, insurgents, terrorists, rebels, militants, or freedom fighters. The list is long and the choice of language is purposeful. The euphemistic labeling is intended to dehumanize the “enemy” and thus reframe harmful behavior by casting it as serving a commendable cause.[2] However, and the caveat is essential, the lack of an identifiable enemy, whose uniform and insignia “markings” are similar to a soldier’s, must not allow for flexibility in the standards the nation-state imposes on itself in how it conducts the conflict.

The former President (Chief Justice) of the Israel Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, was of the opinion that the nation-state must engage in “self-imposed restraints” in conducting operational counterterrorism. This notion must apply to both actual physical engagement and the consequences of how the engagement is conducted. In other words, punishing a soldier who violated rules of engagement is essential to the correct and healthy functioning of a military. The need to discipline reflects the application of traditional punishment theories, including general and specific deterrence and incapacitation. No less important, punishing a soldier sends a clear message to various and distinct publics that violations will not be tolerated, and excess not brooked.

Intolerance for indiscretions, large and small, is the most effective means for ensuring discipline, without which no military unit, regardless of its size, can function effectively. The moment a lack of discipline is enabled, the negative consequences are swift and predictable. To inculcate soldiers with discipline is the essence of command, which is a most difficult and essential undertaking. The slightest crack in the armor of discipline leads to the worst of consequences. Tolerating, or enabling, ill-discipline is akin to a death knell for commanders.

It leads to frenetic efforts by frantic commanders to put the genie back in the bottle. Whether intended or not, and whether he understands the consequences of his action or not, that is exactly what President Trump has allowed.

President Trump has also enabled a dangerous sanctioning of violence beyond the military. One of the strongest findings in experimental social psychology is the corrupting influence of power.[3]  Regardless of how power is exercised, a notable proportion of the population abuses it.[4] And impunity contributes to this already enormous capacity for cruelty. When a lack of consequence is signaled, and even promoted, by those who wield the most power, civility erodes among the broader population. People are more likely to imitate negative behavior enacted by powerful people, especially if they are rewarded for their egregious acts.ibid4 In his political rallies, Mr. Trump often identifies with “tough guys,” and encourages the oppression and humiliation of his enemies. With President Trump, you are either with him or against him. The problem, however, is that this pro-toughness, pro-aggression rhetoric extends beyond politics. Indeed, the normative beliefs about aggression have changed during President Trump’s short tenure, as has the prevalence of aggression. For example, there has been a notable increase in hate crimes since his ascent to power.[5]

Thus, pardoning Michael Behenna, a U.S. Army First Lieutenant who was convicted of murdering an Iraqi detainee,[6] under the legal scrutiny of a military court martial that is well versed in and sensitive about the complexity of war, has dangerous consequences for both military discipline and civic discourse.

This absolution is concerning because the adage that “aggression begets aggression” is well established in the scientific literature, and because powerful people tend to be dissuaded only by other powerful people, or because they have incurred a cost.ibid4

When leadership is permissive, or worse, corrupt, who holds the powerful accountable?

Pardoning guilty soldiers cannot be allowed as it will encourage the abuse of power and will further undermine institutions intended to serve as a check on the abuse of power.

There needs to be accountability. The consequences of lack of accountability are too fraught with danger to tolerate.


[1] Guiora, A. N. (2006). Teaching morality in armed conflict—the Israel Defence Forces Model. Jewish Political Studies Review 18, 1-2.

[2] Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review3, 193-209.

[3] Kipnis, D. (1972). Does power corrupt? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology24, 33-41.

[4] Vaillancourt, T., McDougall, P., Hymel, S., & Sunderani, S. (2009). Respect or fear? The relationship between power and bullying behavior. Handbook of bullying in schools: An international perspective, 211-222.

[5] Edwards, G.S. & Rushin, S. (2018). The effect of President Trump’s election on hate crimes. Available at SSRN: or