The SEAL, Edward Gallagher, US Navy Chief Petty Officer and decorated veteran, was acquitted in July, 2019 of multiple charges in the murder of a teenage ISIS fighter. However, he was found guilty of violating military law by posing for photos with the body of that ISIS fighter. In a highly controversial move, President Trump reversed the military court’s decision and ordered Gallagher’s rank and pay reinstated claiming that we “must protect America’s warriors.” The Department of the Navy and many veterans were outraged by the President’s move claiming that it would destroy the discipline and Honor Code used by our military (and, most of the world’s, too). Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spencer was actually dismissed by Mr. Trump for his vehement criticism of the affair.
Well, CPO Gallagher is back in the news again — and, it ain’t good.
Confidential video obtained by the NY Times shows previously unreleased testimony of members of Gallagher’s own SEAL team 7 who call him things like toxic, a psychopath, and evil. In fact, it becomes apparent that they were actually afraid of him — his own men! It contradicts the testimony made by some of the men at the trial, suggesting that they were ultimately intimated into lying for Gallagher.
Even though I have never experienced combat, I have always been fascinated by how soldiers react under the extreme distress of war and have studied it closely. And, I was always most taken by the words of famous Civil War general and proponent of Total War, William T. Sherman: “war is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” In other words, the only rule of war is to end it, i.e. victory or death. The Japanese lived this in their warrior code known as Bushido. Simply put, they chose death over the dishonor of surrender. In the vicious WWII Battle of Iwo Jima, only about 1,100 men out of a force of 22,000 Japanese survived. It is also why they could be so brutal on prisoners — they had no respect or tolerance for those who surrendered rather than fought to the death.
Now, this post is not to judge. Having not experienced combat directly I have absolutely no right to. But, I want to understand. Therefore, I have to rely on the experience of those who have and ask them, can there be rules when the only options are win or die? Was Sherman right when he said “the crueler it is, the sooner it will be over?” Would we be more likely to avoid war if we lived by that credo?
This is a theme that has been explored by many films including The Bridge Over the River Kwai when the Japanese prison camp commander smacks the leader of the British prisoners in the face with a copy of The Geneva Convention (a book delineating the rules of war) while saying, “this is WAR. Don’t speak to me of rules”. Or, Apocalypse Now when the main character, Colonel Kurtz, speaks with admiration towards the cruelty exhibited by the Viet Cong.
So, I would like to ask all those who have directly experienced the horrors of war and combat for their feelings on this subject: ARE THEY RIGHT? Are men like CPO Gallagher truly wrong under the circumstances? Are they just dealing with the ultimately reality of win or die? Are we being delusional when we limit war? Or, is that just the ultimate oxymoron? I would like to understand.