War Criminals Rewarded

Nationalist Regimes Embracing War Criminals
A toxic cocktail of masculinity, nationalism and violence is resulting in a growing number of regimes supporting war murderers.

by Pallabi Munsi (10-20-20)

  • From the U.S. to India, Sri Lanka to Saudi Arabia, democracies under nationalist leaders and authoritarian regimes are now embracing war criminals as symbols of support to the military.
  • The shift is a reflection of the marriage between masculinity and nationalism playing out in many of these countries, say experts.

At a February 2016 campaign rally in South Carolina, Donald Trump, then running for president, invoked a false story about Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing and how he crushed a Muslim insurgency in the Philippines. Pershing took 50 bullets, dipped them in pigs’ blood and executed 49 Muslims in retaliation for Islamic terrorism, Trump declared at the rally. He even tweeted later: “There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!” 

Like many other elements of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his embrace of war crimes wasn’t just hyperbole. As president, Trump pardoned Mathew Golsteyn, an Army Special Forces officer who claimed to the CIA in a job interview that he killed an Afghan detainee whom he believed was a bomb maker. He (Trump) prevented the demotion of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was acquitted of war crimes charges but was convicted of posing for photographs with a detainee’s corpse. He pardoned Clint Lorance, an Army lieutenant who ordered his unit to fire on unarmed Afghans. And in May this year, Trump pardoned Michael Behenna, a former Army lieutenant who was convicted of killing an unarmed Iraqi detainee.

WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 4: Matt Golsteyn, 38, is a former special forces officer that is now being investigated for war crimes committed in Afghanistan. He is pictured in his Washington, DC office. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin)

Yet while Trump’s actions have sparked criticism from veterans and experts alike, they’re in keeping with a growing global pattern. Muscular, nationalist governments are increasingly demonstrating their support for their militaries by overlooking or even rewarding crimes, while others are turning to war criminals to replicate their brutality in other theaters of war.

In April, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned Sunil Ratnayake, an army sergeant convicted of the murder of eight Tamil civilians during the country’s 26-year civil war. The U.S. has successfully pressured the Afghan government to release hundreds of Taliban prisoners, including some of the most brutal killers, whose victims include soldiers of coalition forces. 

India’s Narendra Modi government has awarded a soldier who tied an innocent Kashmiri man to his jeep and paraded him through a town in 2018. And the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and others are hiring a militia known as the RSF, behind some of the worst crimes in Darfur, to fight in Libya and Yemen.


If the brutality of these war crimes is at variance with the more sophisticated — though no less dangerous — tools of 21st-century power, such as data and information, financial heft and technology, that’s no coincidence. Carolyn Nordstrom, professor emeritus of anthropology at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, explains that modern nation-states are built on 19th-century political and economic foundations. And despite their technological advances, they’re in the midst of internal power struggles between old and new approaches. “The old power is using the only tricks it knows by institutionalizing the armed forces,” she says.

Politics is front and center. The White House insists the pardons are meant to “offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country.” But Trump was blunt on Twitter: “We train our boys to be killing machines, then prosecute them when they kill!” 

This pattern of reprieves and rewards for alleged or convicted war criminals is visible in nations with autocratic regimes or democracies that have witnessed an erosion in the rule of law under nationalist governments, acknowledges Ernesto Verdeja, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who has been a longtime war crimes watcher. But he points out that motivations across regimes vary.

For Saudi Arabia, for instance, the decision to use a notoriously brutal militia of mercenaries to support its overseas wars is little more than a pragmatic strategic choice. For democracies that formally subscribe to the rule of law, like the U.S. or India, “the audience is fundamentally domestic,” Verdeja says. And for that particular domestic audience, “nationalism, masculinity and violence are all tied up together.”

Charles Anthony Smith, associate professor of political science at University of California, Irvine and author of The Rise and Fall of War Crimes Trials: From Charles I to Bush II, concurs.

“When you get a leader of a country who has constructed a tough-guy image, the reality is, the very bad acts happen against people that these tough guys don’t care about,” Smith says. “They either don’t like their ethnicity or their country of origin, or something like that.” The ones who fail to get justice by such pardons are almost “never the tough guys’ constituents.” 

Leaders such as Trump, Modi and Rajapaksa pitch themselves as their countries’ best hope for law and order. But in reality, they end up defending lawlessness. “By fanning the flames of bigotry, they feel good about what they’re doing,” Smith adds. “It gives them a sense of empowerment.”

  • Pallabi Munsi

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