Last week, in a move that defied the wishes of Pentagon officials, President Donald Trump blocked the removal of Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher — an accused war criminal — from the Navy SEALs. In addition, Trump restored Gallagher’s rank, and the debacle led to the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer who had argued against Gallagher remaining a SEAL. In a final letter to Trump, Spencer acknowledged his termination and stated Trump does not have “the same understanding” of the “rule of law … good order and discipline.”
Spencer’s letter is scathing, and for good reason. Gallagher’s retention of his rank and SEAL pin is entirely unwarranted and defies the moral standards we should uphold in our military. To recap Gallagher’s case: In 2017, Gallagher was deployed in Iraq with Navy Seal Team 7. In Iraq, Gallagher allegedly stabbed an unarmed, teenage ISIS prisoner and took trophy pictures with the body. Gallagher was reported by others in his platoon, and after a Navy investigation, Gallagher was charged with premeditated murder, shooting at civilians (in other incidents), threatening his subordinates to not cooperate with the investigation and taking photos with the dead insurgent. He was also charged with obstruction of justice for threatening to kill SEALs who report him.
Prior to his trial, Gallagher received considerable support and attention from several conservatives, including 18 House Republicans, Fox News commentator Pete Hegseth and Trump, who intervened to move Gallagher to “less restrictive confinement” in March. Conservative support for Gallagher intensified after the lead prosecutor in his case was removed for misconduct. Still, Navy prosecutors believed their case was solid: Gallagher had posted trophy photos with the corpse, Gallagher appeared to admit responsibility for the killing in text messages and several eyewitnesses testified they saw Gallagher stab the prisoner.
However, the legal case fell apart when Corey Scott, another witness who was conveniently granted immunity, changed his story on the stand and claimed to be the one who killed the prisoner by covering his breathing tube. In the aftermath, Gallagher was acquitted of murder but found guilty of taking a trophy photo with the prisoner’s corpse, for which he was demoted.
Now to be clear, while Scott’s dramatic reversal torpedoed the Navy prosecutors’ legal case, abundant evidence points to Gallagher’s guilt. When pressed on the stand by prosecutors as to why he changed his story, Scott responded that Gallagher did not have to go to prison. Scott’s dramatic reversal did not spur the other witnesses to change their testimony, nor does it explain Gallagher’s text messages in which he admitted culpability for the killing. Navy prosecutors were so confident Scott’s testimony was a lie they explored the possibility of charging him with perjury, but ultimately concluded there was not a viable legal path to do so. One final key point is that no one, not even Scott, denies that Gallagher stabbed the prisoner in the neck — though Scott claims the stabbing did not appear fatal.
Gallagher’s acquittal provided a potential point of closure in the saga. Unfortunately, conservatives doubled-down on their bizarre commitment to defending a clear-cut war criminal, keeping the case in the spotlight. Trump publicly mulled pardoning Gallagher, reinstated his rank and ultimately intervened to allow Gallagher to retire as a SEAL. This creates a mockery of the independence of the military-justice system and strains the separation of military and political affairs.
In the wake of Spencer’s ouster, Defense Secretary Mark Esper expressed frustration that the Gallagher case has been so “distracted” and “dragged on for so long,” confirming that Trump made the final decision to block his removal from the SEALs. Esper is correct that the case has been long and distracting, but the larger shame is the self-inflicted black eye for the United States military. Our military rightfully prides itself on being just, precise and professional, but this well-earned reputation is impugned by the commander-in-chief’s vocal support for war criminals — and it is not just Gallagher. Trump, conservative media, Republican members of Congress and everyone who rushed to defend Gallagher and other American war criminals are to blame for this debacle.
Gallagher is not a good man, and he clearly does not exhibit the character demanded from those who represent the U.S. in uniform. However, his case offers a lesson on how we react to the wrongdoings of those who serve. Those who serve our country and our communities — whether as soldiers, police officers, firefighters or first responders — make great sacrifices and are deserving of our sincere and solemn respect. However, with their sacrifice comes great responsibility, trust and power. Whether it be a soldier who kills unarmed prisoners or a police officer who racially profiles, we must be willing to call out those who violate the responsibilities they are entrusted with.
Most of those who serve are good people — even heroes — but our reverence and respect for them does not preclude us from demanding high standards. In fact, unwillingness to discourage the misconduct of wayward service members cheapens and erodes the respect that virtuous service members have rightfully earned.
Noah Harrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.