The New York Times reports on the “disturbing” case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher:
On this episode of “The Weekly,” members of SEAL Team 7 tell Navy investigators that Gallagher was a reckless leader with a disturbing hunger for violence. They say they spent much of their time protecting Iraqi civilians from their battle-crazed chief instead of going after ISIS. And never-before-released video from the SEALs’ deployment shows Gallagher kneeling beside a defenseless ISIS captive moments before Gallagher plunged his knife into the prisoner’s neck.
The problem is, Gallagher was acquitted of the most “disturbing” charges made against him. But don’t shelve your outrage too quickly. There is something outrage-worthy here. To see this, it may be worth our while to stand back a bit and see the battlefield corpses for the legal case.
Between 7 and 12 of Gallagher’s colleagues accused him of war crimes. Their testimony was (apparently) riddled with inconsistencies and errors. Predictably, Gallagher’s attorneys capitalized on this fact to discredit the witnesses against Gallagher. And so Gallagher was acquitted.
I don’t claim to know whether Gallagher is in fact innocent of the charges made against him, or guilty as charged. But I also don’t think it matters. To worry so much about that is to fail to see the obvious implication. If 7-12 of Gallagher’s American colleagues accused him of war crimes, and were unable to make those charges stick in an American court of law, what are the chances that those Iraqis that Gallagher et al killed would have been found “guilty” of anything in a more impartial setting? The default assumption among Americans seems to be that anyone who shoots at an American is thereby “guilty” of something that justifies death. But recall that we invaded Iraq. What if matters are the other way around? In other words, what if we assume that an armed aggressor who invasively crosses a legitimate boundary sets himself up to be shot?
Those are questions, not statements. But even in interrogative form, they ought to generate doubts about our one-eyed fixation on the Gallagher case. Instead of worrying about Gallagher’s guilt, maybe we should be worrying more about our own collective guilt.* The median voter theorem holds that democracies like the United States are responsive to the preferences of the median voter. We may not have declared war against Iraq, but we started the war with the eager acquiescience of our Congressional representatives. Put more simply: we started the Iraq war. We sent the likes of Gallagher et al over there. What did we think they were going to do the people who lived there? Arrest them, read them their Miranda rights, and give them top-notch defense attorneys for gold-standard civilian trials? We sent the military over there to kill people en masse. That’s what an invasion is.
It’s of no consequence whether or not all of those killings violated the letter of “the rules of war.” What matters is the default assumption under which the killings took place: that it was justified to kill at all. At this point–from this distance in space, time, and circumstances–it’s impossible for an outsider to judge Eddie Gallagher’s guilt or innocence. But for the same reason, it is also impossible for an outsider to judge the guilt or innocence of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis we killed. We can’t even count them, much less judge their guilt or innocence. All we can know is that we killed thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people. What if half were innocent? What if most were innocent? What if 90 or 95 or even 99% were? Who knows? How can we know?
The relevant issue is not whether Gallagher is guilty or innocent of the specific charges brought against him. The relevant issue is that the guilt or innocence of the Iraqis we killed is far more important than Gallagher’s. Given that we can’t really know their guilt or innocence, the relevant corollary issue is that our recklessness with military force is no different from that of a drunk driver or a participant in a game of Russian roulette–a game in which the barrel is pointed at someone else. Like them, we’re willing to kill people without having any idea who they are or why they deserve death.
Since I don’t claim to know Gallagher’s guilt or innocence, I can’t say that I share the widespread resentment of him that I’ve seen online and in the press. As far as I’m concerned (and judging by the evidence available to the public), he’s not that much different from the military veterans I’ve encountered in my classrooms at Felician and John Jay (both military-friendly schools) who have, whether in deep anguish or in a spirit of masculine joviality, confessed their battlefield transgressions to me. As far as I can tell from my admittedly limited experience, the differences between my students and the Eddie Gallaghers of the war are a matter of degree rather than kind. The relevant point is that they were both trained to kill, and both did their fair share of it. (Obviously, they have their Iraqi counterparts as well.)
Only one thing in the whole “Chief Gallgaher” episode has really offended me: a screenshot from Gallagher’s Instagram account (click this link and scroll down). It shows Gallagher holding a hatchet he used in Iraq, the implication being that the hatchet he’s holding was used to kill people there. I’m not offended by the hatchet per se, or even by the idea of hacking someone to death with it, but by the slogan on the bracelet Gallagher is wearing in the photo. The pronoun at the beginning of the slogan is partly obscured, but it’s either an “I” or a “we.” A good bet is that it reads:
I kill bad dudes.
Bad dudes. If only war were an episode of Cops. Even Cops has the pro forma decency to remind us that “All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.”**
No such decency forthcoming here. Truth is, what Gallagher’s bracelet should really say is:
I kill people that I would like you to believe are ‘bad dudes’, when the evidence you have of their badness is a hell of a lot worse than the evidence against me.
Gallagher’s acquittal depends crucially on the uncertainty about the charges against him. But the very uncertainty that acquits him acquits everyone he killed, and acquits just about everyone that was killed in Iraq. In other words, judging by the defense his attorneys offered, the “bad dudes” Gallagher killed are no badder than he is. Since the preceding message probably wouldn’t fit on his wrist, I would suggest that he tattoo it to his forehead just to remind the world of the bad-faith bullshit artistry implicit in the message he does wear.
I don’t mean, of course, that Gallagher was himself guilty of killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. I mean that we were, where “we” includes him. We all killed a couple of hundred thousand “bad dudes” on evidence much, much worse than that discredited in Gallagher’s trial. Perhaps we should all tattoo scarlet question marks on our foreheads, just to remind ourselves of our own guilt? A lot to ask, I suppose. It might suffice to ask the right questions in the future, persisting with the evidence at hand until we got the right answers–about our past wars, our present wars, and any that the powers-that-be decide in their wisdom to throw our way.
*I exclude people who were categorically against the Iraq war from the very beginning until the present. I regret that I myself don’t make that cut. Though questions remain about Gallagher’s innocence, my own rule is to write and speak about him on the presumption of innocence until and unless inculpatory evidence against him materializes, discounting all inculpatory testimony against him made by his colleagues.
**Just to be clear: I don’t mean to imply that all wartime killing must morally speaking meet the evidential standards of a criminal trial. What I mean is that if a war neither satisfies ad bellum criteria nor courtroom standards of guilt and innocence, the killings engaged in by the party starting the war are bound to be unjustified.