As we try to figure out what happened in Yemen during the U.S. military raid on January 28th, there are a host of questions that remain unanswered. Here, we explore another very disturbing query: What do President Trump’s campaign promises to commit war crimes mean for the men and women in uniform today?
To begin, all indications are that there were many errors that contributed to the fatality of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, the injury of three other U.S. soldiers, and the deaths of a number of residents — some of whom were engaging in hostilities and thus legitimate targets when on a legal battlefield. According to local reports, the count of the dead included nine men, six women and nine children.
Many are correctly writing about the mistakes, but that is not the primary focus here. Our attention is on the fact that President Trump now forces us to contemplate another, and truly unconscionable, question: will the world see this as fulfilling a campaign promise to “take out” the family members of suspected terrorists?
The first days of Trump’s presidency, as is always the case, have been about fulfilling vows made in the lead up to the election. He has proudly stated how current policies match statements he made in the campaign. So it is natural that many will ask if this operation was meant for the same purpose.
According to Yemeni officials, the 8-year-old American daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki (an al Qaeda leader born in New Mexico and targeted in a drone strike in 2011) was also killed in the weekend raid. While it has been reported that some women took up arms to take part in the firefight, no one has suggested that this young girl and the other children were doing the same. Most importantly for our purposes, it is the fact that she fits the description of the type of targets that Trump spoke of eliminating during his campaign that raises a daunting specter. But even if al-Awlaki’s daughter most noticeably matches this vow, it is an alarming accusation that can be leveled whenever children or other family members of enemy fighters lose their life during a U.S. operation against a suspected terrorist compound.
From our point of view, it is inconceivable that U.S. soldiers would actually follow such a plainly illegal and deeply immoral command were it actually given. It has been clearly established since WWII in the Principles of Nüremberg: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.” Indeed, distinguishing between combatants and civilians is the first rule of customary international humanitarian law, and undoubtedly applies to non-international armed conflict.
The rules are unambiguous, and U.S. soldiers are among the most professional fighting forces in the world. However, the fact the president told the public he would order such attacks if elected backs us all into a very dark corner. The darkness is even more ominous since the president also speaks openly about instituting actions that rise to the level of torture and pillage.
Having heard these campaign promises, both our enemies and allies in the world ask if U.S. armed forces might have carried out the most abhorrent of crimes on the orders of the president. To be clear, all militaries face accusations of such war crimes; in this case, the president leaves soldiers defenseless against them.
For the honor of our men and women in uniform, the president must unequivocally state that targeting non-combatant family members is not the policy of the U.S. government — recognize its illegality — and state that troops will never be asked to do so. In addition, he must explicitly renounce all other war crimes he has called for.
For every moment that he leaves these offenses on the table, President Trump opens our military to an unspeakable disgrace they did not invite.