ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump has made good on a pledge. Two Army officers accused or convicted of war crimes have been fully pardoned, and a third has had his rank restored. Ex-Army Captain (ph) Clint Lorance, who had been convicted of murder, received one of the pardons on Friday. Lorance appeared on Fox News this morning and thanked the president for clemency.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)
FORMER LIEUTENANT CLINT LORANCE: I'm so happy to be an American. We're part of this, you know, amazing country. And it's got such great, you know, impassioned leadership.
SHAPIRO: These pardons had been anticipated and debated by service members and veterans. NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans and joins us now.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Tell us the details of these three very different cases.
LAWRENCE: Right. Lorance, who you just heard from, was convicted of second-degree murder for ordering his men to shoot down civilians in Afghanistan. It's a pretty clear-cut case. He was sentenced to 19 years; he served six. Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was accused of killing civilians as well, and even killing an ISIS prisoner with his hunting knife. But he was acquitted of everything but the crime of posing for a photo with a dead insurgent. And then Army Maj. Mat Golsteyn had admitted killing an alleged Taliban bomb-maker and then hiding the body. And he hadn't even been court-martialed yet.
SHAPIRO: Now, some conservative media outlets had been urging a pardon for these men. More broadly, how is it playing out in the military among veterans?
LAWRENCE: Well, veterans are not a monolith, so you can get a range of opinions on this. Earlier this year, the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America actually polled their membership about the pardons 'cause these had been talked about for quite a while now. And they came with a split of 50-something percent saying that they were against pardoning these alleged war criminals and 37% to 40% saying that they were in favor of the pardons.
I called up a Marine I know who served in the same operation as Maj. Mat Golsteyn in Helmand province. He said he supports President Trump's decision. You can listen to Wesley Hillis (ph). He's a three-time Afghanistan vet.
WESLEY HILLIS: War will take a darn good people and make them do things that a person that's just sitting in America will deem as scary or barbaric or savage - but not so much when you're in theater and you're dealing with those emotions and what's been happening to you and your unit and you see the brutal side of it.
SHAPIRO: So some veterans supportive of these pardons - but you said others are not.
LAWRENCE: Including combat vets; Army vet Matt Gallagher (ph) - no relation to Eddie Gallagher - served in Iraq during the surge. He told me that the whole point for him is that American troops in the heat of battle are supposed to keep their heads and not cross these lines. In particular, he spoke about the case of Lt. Clint Lorance, who hadn't been in command very long when he ordered his troops to do this. Listen to him.
MATT GALLAGHER: Anybody who went abroad to Iraq or Afghanistan were in murky situations. This isn't that, though. This was murder. To have a new lieutenant - you know, on Day 3 - to give that order and then to have nine of his own platoon members testify against him, that to me is very telling. I found myself thinking a lot about the soldiers that I knew that I served with that held that line, that maintained their honor under very dire circumstances.
SHAPIRO: Quil, I've seen some criticism today that these pardons undermine the military justice system. Are you hearing that from veterans you're talking to?
LAWRENCE: Yes, although some are pointing out that the presidential pardon is part of our justice system. These cases are - sort of hit that from different angles. Lorance was convicted. He's now pardoned, but he was - he's pardoned of murder. And Gallagher was accused of serious war crimes and acquitted in a trial where almost everyone agrees the prosecution was pretty incompetent. Golsteyn wasn't even tried yet.
The only thing they have in common, really, is that they were in cold blood. There was no heat of battle with any of these three. I spoke with retired Lt. Col. Gary Solis, who taught law at West Point and Georgetown for many years, and he said he was screaming mad about these pardons. He was as concerned about moral issues as legal ones.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL, RET GARY SOLIS: It puts us on a par with the enemy. And we can't allow that. In the future, those who witness war crimes are going to be less apt to report them because they've seen what happens.
LAWRENCE: And Solis is interesting because he was a Marine lawyer - a JAG - but before that, he was a line officer in Vietnam. So he's seen combat. This is not an armchair declaration for him.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Quil Lawrence, thank you.
LAWRENCE: Thanks, Ari.
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