In the Academy Award-nominated film “A War,” a platoon leader named Claus Michael Pederson finds his unit under heavy fire in Afghanistan. He directs a close air support on a nearby building he believes is housing Taliban fighters, but it turns out the building is actually full of civilians.
When he returns to his native Denmark, he faces a trial for violating the rules of engagement (ROE) in a way that allegedly caused the deaths of innocents killed in the air strike. He defends himself by stating that his primary responsibility was to save his men and the ROE put him in a position where he couldn’t do that.
Here are 5 trials in American military history that illustrate that war is never clean and often involves choosing the best among bad options:
1. General William “Billy” Mitchell
A member of the Army General Staff before WWI, Mitchell traveled to Europe to study aviation’s possible effects on warfare at the time and concluded that airpower would revolutionize war in every conceivable way… and he was very vocal about it. When a Navy airship crashed and killed his crew, Mitchell said, “These accidents are the result of the incompetency, the criminal negligence and the almost treasonable negligence of our national defense by the Navy and War Departments,” prompting President Coolidge to call for his court martial. He was convicted of insubordination and suspended without pay for five years.
Related: The “Father of the Air Force” challenged the limits of freedom of speech and lost
2. Nuremburg Trials
The War Crimes Trials at Nuremberg lasted four years and brought to justice many of the highest ranking German officials and collaborators. Eleven of the 21 defendants were sentenced to death and 20 out of 65 others were summarily executed.
3. Major General Robert Grow
Grow was an heroic armor commander during World War II who became the military attaché to Moscow in the years following the war. In 1952, the Soviet Union stole Grow’s personal diary from a hotel room in Frankfurt, Germany. When portions of the diary showed up in Soviet media, Grow was charged failing to safeguard classified information under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He was convicted by court martial in 1952 and removed from his command.
4. Lt. William Calley
In March of 1968 Lieutenant William Calley was on his second tour in Vietnam when the company under his command murdered hundreds of unarmed civilians in the small village of My Lai. The incident was covered up, but a Life magazine photographer had a series of photos published the next year, which caused a huge public outcry. In his 1970 trial, witnesses testified that Calley had ordered the slaughter of the civilians he claimed were Viet Cong guerillas. He was given a life sentence for the murder of 22 civilians, but President Nixon paroled him after only three years. Calley apologized publicly for his crimes in 2009.
5. Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning
Manning was a 22-year-old Army intelligence analyst in Iraq who sent a trove of classified intelligence data to an ascending website known as Wikileaks, which gave the world insight into the U.S.’ military dealings. Manning and Wikileaks were credited with information that helped spark the Arab Spring uprisings. She was charged with more than 22 violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Manning is currently serving a 35-year sentence at Fort Leavenworth.