The case of former Special Forces Major Matthew Golsteyn is a convoluted one.
Golsteyn served bravely in Afghanistan, he was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry, an award that was upgraded to the nation’s second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross. Golsteyn was apparently selected to be detailed to the CIA and as a part of this process, he took a polygraph exam. In that exam, he admitted to what sounded very much like a war crime. The incident was investigated by the Army for three years and could not be substantiated, but the evidence it produced was such that Obama’s Secretary of the Army revoked Golsteyn’s award for valor and removed him from serving in Special Forces. At the time, I was very critical of this move…and I remain very critical of the decision to strip Golsteyn of a decoration he earned unconnected to the crime he was accused of. This is like taking away someone’s dental appointments for having a DUI–stupid, irrational, and quintessential institutional Army in nature.
In 2016, Golsteyn was interviewed by Brett Baier in a FoxNews series and was asked, point blank, about the allegation (video is cued up for your convenience).
Baier: Did you kill the Taliban bomb makee?
Based on that interview, Golsteyn’s commander decided to charge him with murder. See my colleague Elizabeth Vaughn’s post on the subject.
Now, President Trump says Golsteyn’s case has his attention:
At the request of many, I will be reviewing the case of a “U.S. Military hero,” Major Matt Golsteyn, who is charged with murder. He could face the death penalty from our own government after he admitted to killing a Terrorist bomb maker while overseas. @PeteHegseth @FoxNews
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 16, 2018
Let me say here, as I said in comments on Elizabeth’s post, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Golsteyn. My initial support was based on him being cleared of a crime by an investigation and still being administratively punished by the Army leadership. His interview paints a very different picture. He killed the guy, he buried him in a temporary grave, and later, retrieved the body and disposed of it in a burn-pit. It called to mind this case from one of my favorite movies:
A military, if it is not to degenerate into an armed mob, must have discipline. Part of that discipline is doing things that may not make a lot of sense (see the first day of the Battle of the Somme, for instance). That rule applies more strictly as you go up the chain of command because your troops take their cues from you.
While I don’t think an intervention in Golsteyn’s case, alone, is a particularly good move–bad facts make bad precedents–I think this would be a great time for President Trump to convene a commission to examine all of the war crimes convictions meted out since 2003. There are a lot out there that are flaky. Former 1LT Clint Lorrance, for example, is serving 19 years for an arguably justified decision to kill two Afghans he perceived as a threat to his unit. What should have been handled, at its worst, by administrative action was converted into a murder conviction by overzealous Army prosecutors out to take a scalp. The Blackwater guys who have undergone an absolute travesty for their role in what seems to be a totally justified firefight and were prosecuted simply because Obama’s Justice Department didn’t like what they did for a living. There are others out there whose cases should be reviewed.
Combat is very untidy and young men, under intense pressure, make some bad decisions. Some of those are criminal. The circumstances may call for mitigation of punishment–William Calley served 3 1/2 years for My Lai; Horace West served one year for killing 37 prisoners in Sicily–but justice demands the crimes be acknowledged. President Trump has a great opportunity to serve justice and mercy. Let’s hope he does.
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