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Trump's pardon for soldiers raises fears that war laws are history

Army First Lieutenant Clint Lorance took off the inmate's boring uniform worn for six years on Friday and left the military prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas as a freedman. A few minutes later, he arrived at a nearby hotel, where his family swallowed him in a group hug and cried for joy.

"I want to thank President Trump," he said amidst a crowd of well-wishers. "And I want the rest of the country to do that too."

The President acquitted Lieutenant Lorance and two other soldiers charged or convicted of war crimes on Friday, and hailed thousands of supporters who said the men had been unfairly punished for war-torn decisions.

But many in the military, especially in military law, do not celebrate. Mr. Trump's warnings against high-level defense officials were not just a sign of disregard for the decisions of the military juries, but also of the judicial process itself.

Military officials publicly took orders from the president to Maj. Matt hired Golsteyn of the Army Special Forces and Lieutenant Lorance, and a reduction in punishment for Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher of the Navy SEALs – with a terse yes.

"We are confirming his command and we have to implement this," said the Marine Information Officer on Twitter. However, many privately feared that Trump's actions could undermine discipline by sending a message to troops and commanders that in some cases the laws of war would not apply.

"It's just institutionally harmful," said Rachel VanLandingham, a retired Luftwaffe lieutenant colonel and former judge's attorney who now teaches law at Southwestern Law School. "It's not about these three people, it's about the whole military judicial system and whether this system is worthy even for military operations."

The President, she added, "says he knows best.

While all three men were charged with war crimes, the details of their cases raised various concerns over the military order.

Mr. Trump is not the first commander in chief to exercise the power of mercy polarizing.

Washington pardoned men sentenced to high treason during the 1791-94 whiskey rebellion despite protest from other federalists, said Mark Osler, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

President Abraham Lincoln has repeatedly pardoned soldiers who were sentenced to death for deserting, despite warnings that his generals would undermine discipline on the battlefield. President Gerald Ford announced in 1974 at a meeting of veterans of the foreign wars to pardon 13,000 deserters and draft Dodger under reserve, which was not well received by the war veterans. His successor Jimmy Carter unconditionally pardoned hundreds of thousands of conscripts.

"It happened after every war," said Mr. Osler. "Pardons are used to forgive the crime and heal the nation. What's different now is that the signal seems to be here to accept the crime of not forgiving it. President Trump seems to send a message that the gloves are off, that we will not restrict our military.

The reactions of combat veterans were split. Many thanked the President for intervening on behalf of men who volunteered for the service and protection of their country. Others said that the gesture of forgiveness affected the service of troops who served under the same annoying conditions but did not violate the laws of war.

"This is a sad day for tens of thousands of us leading troops in combat Iraq and Afghanistan have been proud of the way we have maintained our good order and discipline despite many challenges," said Andrew Exum former Army Special Forces officer stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan on Twitter. "These men, who are now pardoned, remain a shame to our ranks."

But for other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the pardons brought back only grim reminders of violence and a doctrine of counterinsurgency that often blurs moral boundaries.

Jorge Rodriguez was a Marine infantryman dispatched to Afghanistan in 2008. He was a Texas policeman now and recalled a day in southern Afghanistan when his machine gun team fired as a private on two men fleeing a motorcycle from a nearby village. The village the commanders said was not civilians contained.

Like countless murders in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was never reported as questionable and never investigated.

The bodies were left behind for weeks on the roadside 50 meters from his small outpost. They were young, Mr. Rodriguez said, and until now he does not know if they were Taliban fighters or not.

"It was a war," he said. "And people will never understand what they asked us to do."

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington.

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