Does any American believe that Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, 28, should remain in a military prison for the next 20 years for "murder" after giving a legitimate order to his soldiers to fire at three Afghan men on motorcycles, killing two in the process?
What circumstances in those few seconds of on-the-ground command decision-making -- during Lorance's second patrol in Afghanistan -- could possibly compel the Army to rob Lorance of his freedom until he is 48 years old?
I have been reading up on Lorance's case and I find none. I am not a military prosecutor (thank goodness), but I see nothing in accounts of the incident to warrant a sentence of two decades -- unless, that is, Lorance's lawyer, retired Lt. Col. Guy Womack is correct. Following Lorance's sentencing at Ft. Bragg, N.C., on Aug. 1, Womack said: "The Army is using him as a scapegoat so they can tell the Afghan government the person who killed the civilians is being punished."
Read it and weep -- and get sick.
Then, I hope, get angry -- and let your congressman know it.
I have long had the terrible suspicion that the military has followed a "sacrificial lamb" strategy as the ugly subtext of "murder" prosecutions related to Iraq and Afghanistan going back at least as far as Haditha in 2005. Another landmark case involved Army Sgt. Evan Vela in 2007.
Vela is the first-tour Army sniper whose commander ordered him to kill a captured Iraqi who had blown the squad's cover behind enemy lines. In a highly unusual procedure, Vela was tried for murder in Iraq even after his division was ordered home. The Iraqi minister for human rights at the time, Wijdan Salim, attended the trial. "I want to be sure that any American soldier who wrongs an Iraqi will go on trial," Ms. Salim told Time magazine. "(Vela) killed an Iraqi man, an unarmed man. He must be punished." Vela was. He was sentenced to 10 years beginning in 2008. Thankfully, he was paroled earlier this year.
Sgt. Derrick Miller, however, is now facing life in prison with the possibility of parole. Miller is the Army National Guard veteran of Afghanistan, who, in self-defense during a harsh interrogation in 2010, killed an Afghan who had penetrated his squad's defensive perimeter. The draconian severity of Miller's penalty is particularly questionable, given the fragility of the prosecution's case. Defense attorney Charles Gittins, who represented Miller at his court martial, told me in an email that one witness, a U.S. soldier, changed his story supporting Miller's claim of self-defense "when he was threatened with being named an accessory and being placed on legal hold so he could not de-mobilize. The other witness," Gittins continued, "was an Afghan translator who was promised U.S. citizenship in exchange for his testimony."
Sounds like another "scapegoat" case to me.
Does locking up U.S. soldiers and throwing away the key now come under the heading of "winning hearts and minds" in the Islamic world? Aside from the grotesque injustice to these men, it isn't working. And it won't. What it does do, however, is have the effect of surrendering yet another piece of our Western identity and volition to Islamic norms.
The question remains: What kind of government punishes men who step up to fight in the hellholes of the world where our leaders believe, at least until they don't, that they see America's "vital interests"? In the blink of a president's eye, armies are redirected, men are redeployed, but our prisoners of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars remain behind bars. In the blink of an eye, these soldiers made the life-or-death determination that may have saved their lives, but also lost them their liberty. I'm thinking of Lorance, a 10-year Army veteran, just starting his 20-year-stretch; 1st Lt. Michael Behenna turning the corner on Year Four of his (reduced) sentence of 15 years; PFC Corey Clagett looking at 12 more years, out of 18. As for Sgt. John Hatley, does he even count these first years off his 40-year-sentence? And there are others. Meanwhile, Derrick Miller has to get to 10 years before he can even apply for parole.
That's some scapegoat plan.
I wonder if these men ever realize that their most grievous crime in the eyes of their country's leaders is, in fact, their own survival. After all, acting may have saved their lives where hesitation might have ended them. In death, their leaders would hang their heads and mourn, at least a little. But after these men broke the "rules of engagement," those sacraments of counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, the leaders they served sought to punish them to the maximum extent of the law.
Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of jihadists from the same battlefields have long been granted clemency by Uncle Sam.
For more information about 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, see www.defendveteranlorance.com. For more information about 1st Lt. Michael Behenna, see defendmichael.com. Some other cases are followed at unitedpatriots.org.
(Diana West's new book is "American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character" from St. Martin's Press. She blogs at dianawest.net, and she can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @diana_west_.)