Hero or Murderer: The Pardoning of Michael Behenna

In "celebration" of Memorial Day, this Nation’s most somber day of remembering and grieving those sacrificed in war, President Trump is considering pardoning a number of Servicemen accused or convicted of war crimes. To the delight of some and the outrage of others, President Trump has already granted a full pardon to Michael Behenna, a former Army First Lieutenant convicted of murdering Ali Mansur Mohamed, a released Iraqi detainee. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended the pardon stating that "the U.S. Army’s highest appellate court noted concern about how the trial court had handled Mr. Behenna’s claim of self-defense." Sanders also alluded to the "broad support" his case had attracted "from the military, Oklahoma elected officials, . . . thirty-seven generals and admirals, along with a former Inspector General of the Department of Defense." Not everyone was convinced, however. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, considered the pardon “a presidential endorsement of a murder that violated the military’s own code of justice.” Andrew Exum, former U.S. deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy, in a recent article in The Atlantic, argued that pardoning Behenna "dishonors the thousands of men and women who successfully led combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan – often under extreme stress – without committing crimes and other atrocities" and ". . . undermines the good order and discipline that is so important to a functioning military."

The Etiology of War Crimes

War is a rule-governed enterprise in which murder ought not be ignored, justified, or excused by Presidential pardon. Murderers must be held accountable for violations of law and morality. Consequently, the conditions of war, military service, and its impact on those who fight, must be scrutinized and evaluated to explain the frequent occurrence of war crimes and to ensure future compliance with the rules of war.

Certainly, as Secretary Exum indicated in his commentary, many perhaps even most members of the military who experience the trauma of war and the loss of comrades do not become murderers and, instead, continue to kill and destroy in a moral and lawful manner – somewhat of an oxymoron I think. This has led many war apologists, mainly those who embrace the ethos of the just war and the noble warrior, to explain as an anomaly attributable to aberrant individuals and/or to a breakdown in proper military discipline, what military theorists describe as a "healthy command climate," the barbarity of Lieutenants Michael Behenna and William Calley, Blackwater Contractor Nicholas Slatten, Major Mathew Golsteyn, Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher, Private Lynndie England, and the Marine snipers who after having killed several Taliban fighters urinated on their corpses, to mention but a few.

What I will term the "anomaly explanation" is inadequate for a number of reasons. First, it ignores or underestimates the frequency of the occurrence of atrocity – violations of the law and the morality of war. Second, it betrays a lack of appreciation for the effectiveness and impact of the programming and conditioning to which recruits are subjected in Basic Training/Boot Camp to create soldiers who will kill. These sophisticated techniques of value manipulation, moral desensitization and psychological conditioning are aimed at destroying or overriding what psychologist Lt. Colonel David Grossman and others have described as an instinctive aversion to killing members of one’s own species.

Further, to portray ignoble warrior behavior as an anomaly betrays a lack of understanding of the profound psychological, emotional, and moral impact of a battlefield environment and the extent to which participants are dehumanized and desensitized to death and destruction. Life amid the violence, death, horror, trauma, anxiety, and fatigue of war erodes our moral being, undoes character, and reduces decent men and women to savages capable of incredible cruelty that would never have been possible before being victimized and sacrificed to war.

Consequently, atrocity in such an environment is not an isolated aberrant occurrence prosecuted by a few deviant individuals. Rather, it is commonplace, intrinsic to the nature and reality of the military experience in war, the inevitable consequence of enduring prolonged life-threatening and morally untenable conditions, what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton identifies as "atrocity-producing situations," subsequent to being conditioned to kill.

Lieutenant Behenna and the others awaiting Presidential pardon are in fact war criminal and murderers. Though war apologists may be hesitant to admit, they are also victims, late adolescent/young adults lured into the military from a sense of duty or with promises of employment, a college education, or U.S. citizenship, first to be programmed to do our bidding as instruments of war – to kill and to destroy – and then put in a situation where killing is condoned, even encouraged and rewarded, where life looses all meaning, and morality, law, and atrocity becomes a matter of perspective, all with the expectation that they retain the cognitive ability to distinguish sanctioned killing from murder.

Finally, the propensity to dutifully judge and appropriately condemn, however reluctantly, Lieutenant Behenna and other "depraved" individuals who dare tarnish the reputation of this great nation by violating the laws of God and man, constitutes a self-serving moralism. It is moralistic as it provides a welcome opportunity for all, no matter their political or ideological perspective, to reassert, perhaps feign is better, their commitment to morality, the rule of law, and to the dictates of their individual and/or collective consciences. It is self-serving by deferring blame to the victims and allowing the rest of us, including our political and corporate leaders, to remain guiltless despite having initiated, profited from, supported, or ignored the war and its inevitable horrific consequences.


I would ask Secretary Exum if he is equally as concerned about dishonoring law abiding servicemen and women and "undermining military good order and discipline" when political and corporate leaders who lied and deceived this country into costly and devastating wars or who profited from their occurrence escape accountability for the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundred of thousands of Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians, many of them civilians. Or when the Commander in Chief instead of an indictment for his crimes is rewarded with a lucrative book deal and honored with the National Constitutional Center’s Liberty Medal.

The appropriate response to Behenna’s criminal act, therefore, is neither prolonged incarceration nor complete vindication by Presidential pardon. Rather, it is to recognize his victimization as extenuating circumstances and grounds for mitigation. It is to propose that he and all those victimized by war, have access to a comprehensive and holistic rehabilitation program, a "reverse boot camp," so to speak, in which they may receive treatment for their psychological, emotional, and moral injuries, shed their identity as warriors and killers, and, with much care, understanding, and patience, readopt behaviors appropriate for reintegration into a civilian environment.

Be clear, the intent of this essay is not to justify or excuse the actions of murderers, rapists, or torturers. But neither do I seek scapegoats in order to absolve myself of culpability and responsibility, as a citizen of a democracy in whose name this murder and many more like it, was committed. Rather my argument is an indictment of war and of those who initiate, profit from, support, and/or ignore its occurrence. It is a plea that we see through the mythology, the lies and deceptions, and understand that ALL war is a crime, that culpability is not theirs alone, and that we all must share responsibility and blame for the inevitable atrocities of war. It is to remind us of the uncomfortable reality that there is blood on all of our hands.

Camillo “Mac” Bica, Ph.D., is an author, activist, and Professor of Philosophy at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His focus is in Social and Political Philosophy and Ethics particularly as it applies to war. Mac is former Marine Corps Officer, Vietnam Veteran, long time activist for peace and social justice and coordinator of Veterans For Peace Long Island. He can be contacted through his website at http://www.camillobica.com.