On Sunday, the US Department of Defense announced that Secretary of Defense Mark T Esper has asked for the resignation of Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer “after losing trust and confidence in him regarding his lack of candour over conversations with the White House involving the handling of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher”.
This could be seen as just one more routine firing in the long chain of senior officials who have exited the Donald Trump administration, but for the reference to Eddie Gallagher. This case raises many important questions in the context of civil-military relations in democracies.
Eddie Gallagher is a Chief Petty Officer with the Navy SEAL. He has been decorated for bravery several times, including two Bronze Stars. Gallagher has also been accused of multiple offences of human rights violations and war crimes. One of the most prominent accusations was the 2017 killing of an Islamic State prisoner who was being treated for his injuries. It was alleged that Gallagher walked up to the prisoner and repeatedly stabbed him with a hunting knife. He then posed for a photograph with the dead body and then forwarded the photo to another SEAL with the message, "Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife”.
Gallagher was arrested in September 2018, and his case immediately got mired in controversies and politics. Leaving aside the limited question of whether there was sufficient evidence directly implicating Gallagher, there was the larger question of how conflict impacts soldiers psychologically and whether there should be any sympathy for terrorists. Tapping into public sentiment, President Trump ordered Gallagher to be transferred to "less restrictive confinement" awaiting trial.
In July 2019, Gallagher was acquitted of all charges except for wrongfully posing with a human casualty. Since the charge carried a maximum punishment of four months (less than the time he had already spent in confinement), Gallagher walked free. As part of his sentence, Gallagher was demoted to Petty Officer First Class, a drop of one rank. Earlier this month, ignoring military advice, President Trump pardoned two officers facing war crimes allegations and also restored Gallagher’s rank.
The drama had not yet entirely played out. While the Navy implemented the President's order, they also decided to conduct an administrative review of Gallagher’s fitness to continue to serve as a SEAL. President Trump weighed in with another tweet, "The Navy will NOT be taking away Warfighter and Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher's Trident Pin. This case was handled very badly from the beginning. Get back to business!"
A few days later, Richard Spencer was fired, and in his letter to the President, he wrote, “The constitution and the uniform code of military justice are the shields that set us apart, and the beacons that protect us all… Unfortunately it has become apparent that in this respect I no longer share the same understanding with the commander-in-chief who appointed me. In regards to the key principle of good order and discipline, I cannot in conscience obey an order that I believe violates the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the constitution.”
Two contrasting positions have been taken in this case. The White House statement, granting clemency to the two officers and promoting Gallagher, stated, "For more than two hundred years, presidents have used their authority to offer second chances to deserving individuals, including those in uniform who have served our country. These actions are in keeping with this long history. As the President has stated, 'when our soldiers have to fight for our country, I want to give them the confidence to fight’. "
The US military can obviously not go openly against the President, but it has been widely reported that there is a concern that political interference in the military judicial system could undermine the authority of command, adversely impact discipline, and dilute faith in military justice.
In India, we have had our share of similar debates on support for soldiers fighting terrorists as against the need for ensuring a military code of ethical conduct. Frankly, there are no simple answers. The military serves under extremely challenging conditions where normalcy and the rule of law have already broken down. But there is also the need to preserve the ethos of an institution that is perhaps one of the few that has not yet seen a dilution in its standards.
It is a worldwide practice that the soldier is used as an instrument for swaying public sentiment. This is not without reason. The soldier is seen as someone who is selfless, honourable, and willing to sacrifice his life for the nation. In this time of cynicism about the independence of our institutions, the military, in the eyes of the Indian people, stands head and shoulders above the rest.
In his outstanding book The Profession of Arms, General John Hackett writes that the military promotes values like courage, fortitude, and loyalty not only because they are “morally desirable in themselves, but because they are essential to military efficiency”. The culture and ethic of the military is designed to strengthen a way of life where values occupy the centre-stage of all activity.
It is sometimes argued that politics in India has now firmly intruded into the military space and that we need to live with this reality. That may be true, but we also need to ensure that the institution of the military retains its character. This will require political and military leadership to work together to preserve both political supremacy and the military ethic. As the Gallagher case illustrates, if civil-military relations are not handled well, there would be no winners.
(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)