A battle for the soul of the Navy SEALs is taking place as the elite fighting force struggles to determine which is more important — the mission or the law. A highly decorated platoon commander faces trial, accused of murdering non-combatants and executing a wounded prisoner. Republican politicians are fighting his prosecution, saying an extrajudicial killing here or there doesn't matter that much.
No, it matters. And if it requires sending SEALs Chief Edward Gallagher to prison to establish clear legal boundaries for Special Operations troops, so be it. No one, not even an elite warrior like Gallagher, deserves special status above the law.
He is scheduled to go on trial later this month, accused in a 439-page report of multiple crimes, including premeditated murder. Setting clear legal limits matters for the same reasons today as when Army Lt. William Calley was convicted for the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, or when U.S. troops were punished for abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. When American troops receive a free pass for war crimes, other combatant forces take that as a green light to do likewise — including when their victims are Americans.
Among the allegations is that Gallagher in 2017 stabbed to death a wounded Islamic State fighter as the teenager was being treated by SEAL medics. Video evidence backs up this charge.
The testimony against Gallagher is compelling and consistently recounted by SEALs who served alongside him. New York Times reporter Dave Philipps gained access to the criminal investigation files after whistleblowers tried repeatedly to go through the chain of command but were rebuffed.
The SEALs pride themselves on secrecy, a willingness to die for their team members and a rejection of public self-aggrandizement. Gallagher's accusers were faced with an unenviable choice: abiding by their unit's internal code or honorably confronting what they believed to be egregious, ongoing injustices.
They correctly chose to proceed, even if it meant endangering their own careers. These are true American values worth fighting for, not blind loyalty to someone who demonstrated contempt for human rights and the military code.
Gallagher's defenders say his accusers are exacting revenge by making up wild allegations because he pushed them too hard and demanded too high a standard.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.,is among Gallagher's most outspoken defenders. "So let's say that Chief Gallagher killed a verified, designated ISIS combatant. My answer is: So what? That's his job," he told an interviewer.
No, extrajudicial killings are not in any service member's job description, and Hunter displays a woefully shallow understanding of the law if he thinks such crimes are OK. President Donald Trump also took up Gallagher's defense and ordered the Navy to ease the conditions of his confinement.
It's time for the politicians to stand down. Let military justice take its course.
REPRINTED FROM THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH