Staff Columnist

Soldiers with conscience

I read a newspaper article this week that simultaneously filled me with hope and despair.

It was a masterful Washington Post exposé by journalist Greg Jaffe on President Donald Trump’s pardon of a platoon leader in Afghanistan who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a military court. The defendant was Clint Lorance, who was accused of ordering soldiers under his command to fire on unarmed civilians standing near a motorcycle on the road. Two men died in the attack. Members of the platoon later testified that these men were village elders they recognized who traveled on that road all the time.

When other members of the platoon went to investigate the bodies, they found no weapons, only cucumbers. When Lorance’s superior asked him what was found at the scene, Lorance lied and said the bodies could not be recovered because locals had taken them away. Members of Lorance’s platoon were so shocked by his actions and attempted cover-up that they alerted his supervisor of what really happened. It was a courageous act on their part. It’s not easy to stand up to a peer or let alone a superior and tell them, “No, that’s wrong. I won’t do it.” At trial, 10 members of his platoon testified against Lorance. They detailed not just the killing of the two men but about how Lorance had instructed them to fire near civilians two days earlier just to scare them, and about how he threatened to kill an Afghan man and his 4-year-old son after the man asked to move a piece of razor wire that blocked access to his farm.

Given the weight of evidence against Lorance and the fact that not a single member of his platoon spoke in his defense at trial, it seemed like an open and shut case. In 2013, Lorance received his sentence of 20 years, which was later reduced to 19. It looked like the justice system within the military was working.

While Lorance was serving his sentence behind bars, his case drew the attention of conservative radio host and former congressman Allen West, who claimed Lorance’s prosecution was driven by then President Barack Obama’s “outrageous contempt for the military.” Soon Fox News host Sean Hannity was taking up Lorance’s case and referred to his conviction as a “national disgrace.” West, Hannity and other talking heads at Fox News presented to their viewers a fabricated version of events whereby the Afghans killed that day were not standing by the road but racing toward the platoon, and Lorance had to make a split-second decision on whether to fire.

Rather than review the trial notes or interview other members of the platoon, Hannity was content to hear from Lorance’s attorney John Maher, who misrepresented the events, claiming the only people who opposed Lorance’s decision to fire were members of the chain of command who weren’t there, when in fact it was Lorance’s fellow platoon members who supplied the witness testimony that convicted him.

It was Hannity who brought Lorance’s case to the attention of Donald Trump. Against the wishes of the Department of Defense, Trump issued a pardon for Lorance in November of 2019. The pardon has not sat well for the surviving members of the platoon, who made a brave decision to speak out against their commanding officer when it would have been so easy to stay quiet and keep their heads down. But their conscience wouldn’t let them do that.

I felt a lot of strong emotions reading about this case. On the one hand, it seems like such a clear miscarriage of justice that a murderer is walking free. On the other hand, it also demonstrates that the military has plenty of soldiers with integrity, who want to do the right thing even when it won’t make them any friends or land them on a talk show.