For about a decade, I traveled frequently to Afghanistan (and sometimes to Iraq) as a US government official. I was usually protected by American troops, and occasionally by private security guards like the ones who, long after a massacre of civilians in Baghdad, were part of the most recent batch of presidential pardons. I’ve seen how a situation can spiral out of control in a war zone — and how both US service-members and responsible professional contractors make sure that it doesn’t. Pundits sometimes use the “fog of war” to absolve those who commit atrocities in a moment of high tension. They have it precisely reversed: it is because the stakes are so very high that we need to be all the more diligent in our accountability. That’s why these recent pardons may be the most damaging of all the questionable get-out-of-jail-free cards that the Trump administration has issued.
Nicholas Slatten, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty and Paul Slough were four mercenaries, employed by the private security company Blackwater in Iraq. On September 16, 2007, apparently panicking in what they mistakenly took to be an attack, they opened fire with machine guns and grenade launchers on a crowd of unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, killing 17. This was not simply a case of collateral damage in combat. As the US government later stated, “none of the victims was an insurgent, or posed any threat.” The dead included women and children, one as young as nine. After seven years of wrangling, the killers were tried and convicted in an American court. Three of the mercenaries were eventually sentenced to 30 years, one to life imprisonment.
On December 22, 2020, the president set all of these killers free. There are at least five reasons why this decision is deeply, profoundly wrong.
First, it subverted the judicial system. The conviction wasn’t a miscarriage of justice: it was an instance in which the system — under exceptionally difficult circumstances — actually worked. Judge Royce C. Lamberth, a former Army officer appointed to the federal bench by former President Ronald Reagan, had more experience overseeing national security cases than just about any other judicial official in the country. Two dozen witnesses volunteered to fly from Baghdad to Washington, DC. The jury deliberated for 28 days before delivering its verdicts. There was no question about whether the mercenaries had killed the victims, and under federal law the US government has jurisdiction over crimes committed by its security contractors in a war zone. The only question was whether the system could hold employees of a powerful and politically-well-connected US government contractor like Blackwater accountable. Turns out, the judicial system did just that — and the pardons have unraveled that accountability.
Second, these pardons subverted the US military’s code of conduct. One of the most difficult things we ask of service-members is to uphold the rules of combat, even when their own lives are at risk. We put 18-year-olds into life-and-death situations, arm them with enough firepower to destroy entire villages, and expect them to follow the rules. And in almost every instance, they do. But that self-discipline isn’t an accident: it is the result of diligent training — and of the example upheld by all of the service-members (past and present) around them. The four Blackwater guards were, like most private security workers in war zones, all former military. Indeed, the line between current and retired military in Iraq and Afghanistan can often seem hazy. For example, private security guards typically wear uniforms similar to those of US troops, carry the same weapons, and drive the same type of vehicles. It is not just local populations but also US troops themselves who view them as part of the same continuum. After these pardons, a young corporal might ask him/herself: why should I risk my life to safeguard civilians when four former soldiers — all earning many multiples of an E-4 salary— get set free after slaughtering more than a dozen innocent people?
They’ll likely become right-wing celebrities. Perhaps they’ll be offered book deals or invited onto Fox News or called up to the stage at MAGA rallies like accused war criminal Edward Gallagher. While they will be free to capitalize on their heinous actions, the victims’ families and other Iraqis have to live through their pain.
Third, these pardons have obliterated accountability for an incident that directly led to many more killings. The Nisour Square massacre inflamed Iraq. In the two months following the attack, US military fatalities were 44% higher than in the prior two months.* There is no reliable record of the number of increased Iraqi civilian casualties. But given the spike in violence throughout the country, it is likely that the number of innocent Iraqis killed increased as well. If one cares only about American lives, Nisour Square was a major factor in the loss of several dozen. It is impossible to know how many Iraqis died as a result of this event, but a conservative estimate would reach well into the hundreds.
Fourth, it stained the reputation and credibility of America. The FBI case agent who led the investigation of the killings called them the “My Lai massacre of Iraq” — and after the pardon, he repeated this characterization. The My Lai attack took place on March 16, 1968. US soldiers, on a search-and-destroy mission to a village they believed to be sympathetic to the guerrilla Viet Cong movement, slaughtered somewhere between 347 and 504 women, children, and elderly men in the village of My Lai in southern Vietnam. It was hardly the only war crime in the Vietnam War, but it was the most notorious one. Several of the perpetrators were put on trial, but only platoon leader Lt. William Calley served time in prison. My Lai remains a dishonor to America, and so does Nisour Square. Both should. We are all responsible for unpunished crimes committed in our name.
Fifth, and most stark, it was an offense against basic morality. The unarmed civilians killed by the men whom the president pardoned were human beings. They posed no threat to anyone. And the men who killed them are now free. They’ll likely become right-wing celebrities. Perhaps they’ll be offered book deals or invited onto Fox News or called up to the stage at MAGA rallies like accused war criminal Edward Gallagher. While they will be free to capitalize on their heinous actions, the victims’ families and other Iraqis have to live through their pain.
WHY WE SHOULD BE ANGRY AT THESE PARDONS
Presidential pardons are intended to be a back-stop against the injustices that inevitably creep into any legal system. The United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other nation, and a disproportionate number of these inmates are Black and Latinx. There’s a good case to be made for a vast increase in presidential pardons to release more prisoners from long sentences that serve neither justice nor society.
Trump, of course, has not used his power in this way. With only a few exceptions, he has doled out pardons to personal cronies, political allies, and even potential criminal co-conspirators. It is unclear why he granted such clemency to four men he never met. Could it be because a “law and order” president does not see war crimes as actual… crimes? Or because Blackwater was owned by Erik Prince, a billionaire donor who is also the brother of his Education Secretary Betsy DeVos? Or could it be because President-elect Joe Biden championed bringing these killers to justice?
As Inauguration Day draws near, we will likely see many more unjustified gifts of presidential clemency — perhaps some even more reprehensible than this. The Pardon Buffet is open, and it appears to be serving only the very worst customers. But before we move on to the next travesty, let’s pause to remember the innocent civilians who were gunned down, and amazingly given justice at last — only to then have it yanked away. Trump has the power to free their killers from prison, but he does not have the power to wipe away the memory of their crimes.
*DOD breaks figures down by months only.
Jonah Blank served as Policy Director for South and Southeast Asia on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is author of the books Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God and Mullahs on the Mainframe.