The Pentagon's top general assured lawmakers that the president's decision to grant clemency to troops accused of crimes in the war zone won't cause widespread misbehavior.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley told members of the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that President Donald Trump's decision to intervene in three military justice cases won't affect U.S. troops' actions in combat zones. Trump last month granted clemency to two soldiers and restored the rank of a Navy SEAL. All had been charged with wrongdoing in combat zones.
"We will not turn into a gang ... raping, burning and pillaging throughout," Milley said. "... That is not going to happen."
Trump's decision to intervene in the cases has been met with outcry from some who say the move invites more bad behavior. Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance had been serving a 19-year sentence after he was found guilty of second-degree murder for ordering his soldiers to shoot at three unarmed men on a motorcycle in Afghanistan in 2012. Army Maj. Mathew Golsteyn was facing a court-martial after admitting to killing a suspected Afghan bomb maker in 2010, and Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher had recently been found guilty of posing for a photo with a corpse.
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat and former Marine officer who led troops in Iraq, said a senior enlisted Marine told him Trump's decision to intervene in the cases was "appalling."
"[He said it's] basically setting a precedent that the rule of law and a combat zone doesn't apply and encourages folks to start burning villages and pillaging like Genghis Khan," Moulton said, referring to the brutal ruler of the Mongol Empire. "And if you don't like your ruling, just tell Trump personally in all overturn it. The man has greatly marginalized the positions of the service leaders."
Moulton said the Marine concerned about Trump's decision to issue the pardons is a sergeant major with a Navy Cross and Purple Heart.
Milley said he understands where the sergeant major is coming from, but disagreed with his assessment that Trump's intervention will lead to future war crimes. He also backed Trump's place in the military justice system.
"I know the advice that was given [to the president], which I'm not going to share here," Milley said. "But the president of the United States is part of the process and he has the legal authorities to do what he did, and he weighed the conditions in the situation as he saw fit."
The Uniform Code of Military Justice will continue to be upheld, the chairman of the joint chiefs added.
"Good order and discipline are a critical element in order to maintain that capability in some level of humanity in combat zones," Milley said.
Florida Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a retired Army Special Forces officer who served in Afghanistan, said during the hearing that he has also heard from troops about Trump's decision. He warned against charging troops with war crimes that can send them to prison for decades.
"Making a mistake does not necessarily equal war crime," Waltz said. "I do think we have to be careful with the signals that we send, and in this case, it's a very chilling signal that if you make a bad call, you could go to jail for 20 years."
-- Gina Harkins can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.