President Trump’s recent intervention in military due process procedures has shed some light on an experience I had in the 80’s while visiting a war crimes prison run by the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. I was doing research and had requested the opportunity to interview some Contras, members of an insurgent group seeking to undermine the Sandinista government and dubbed “Freedom Fighters” by the Reagan Administration.
Upon arrival I entered a locked gate which led to a courtyard outside a series of open air cells. A few inmates were mingling about in the open, smoking or tending to gardens, while others were locked in their cells. It was a dusty, hot wood and metal encampment on a day pushing 100 degrees F. I asked the guard if I could talk to anyone I wanted. He simply locked the gate behind me and said, “Call for me when you want to be let out.”
I had arrived fully expecting it to be filled with prisoners of war, or Contras. What I discovered was the majority of them were Sandinista soldiers convicted of everything from petty crimes to human rights violations, including the abuse and murder of captured Contras. While I grappled with editing my preconceived narrative with the facts before me, the lesson appeared when upon returning to the gate and requesting I be let out. I said to a Sandinista officer on duty something along the lines of, “You guys certainly appear to have issues with human rights violations.” There was a long pause. With a raised brow and sideways glance he said, “Probably no more than any other army defending it’s sovereignty, only we hold ours accountable.” Given my position as the enemy, the officer clearly took some pleasure in this burn. There was no denying that this late into the conflict that the U.S. was backing mostly opportunists that were basically getting paid by U.S. taxpayers to rape, pillage and terrorize civilian communities.
Training and funding mercenaries to do our dirty work was not unique to our policy in Central America at the time. It provides some arms length distance when public opinion is not favorable to direct intervention and avoids accountability. However, when it comes to our own troops, the U.S. does a fairly good job of weeding out the bad eggs through courts martial or early retirement. And the armed forces have done so with a healthy balance between autonomy and political oversight in holding our troops accountable to the law. It constitutes, in part, the foundation of trust and confidence among our allies with whom we fight for or alongside.
As I reflect on the actions of our current President, I wonder if our nation isn’t losing ground in this regard? Of late, he’s generously utilized his powers as commander in chief to not only circumvent, but publicly challenge long established due process procedures of the U.S. military. In just a few days, military leaders are resigning and openly speaking about a President with no military background making rash and politically motivated decisions, clearly not in our nation’s best interest. Many are declining to be seen with him in public for fear of him further politicizing the military. Concern is no doubt rising after his recent pardon of two military officers, one serving a 19-year sentence for murder and the other due to go on trial for murder later this year. This was quickly followed up by his intervention on behalf of a Navy Seal convicted of posing with a corpse of a teenage ISIS fighter that he was suspected of murdering.
While I wouldn’t hold the former Sandinista regime as a model to follow, until now I had confidence that ours had as good reputation as any for holding troops accountable. In his letter to President Trump last week, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said, “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries.” Our military leaders get this. Given our President’s aversion to rule of law, in this case the Uniform Code of Military Justice, perhaps he should stick to pardoning turkeys at Thanksgiving?