Mnuchin’s excuse for delaying the Harriet Tubman $20 bill is insulting

It is more likely that Mr. Mnuchin, as the New York Times reported, feared President Trump would cause an uproar with an outright cancellation of a bill bearing Tubman’s image. As a candidate, Mr. Trump criticized the decision as “political correctness,” and he has made no secret of his admiration for President Andrew Jackson, whose image Tubman would have dislodged from the front of the $20 bill.

Some would argue there are bigger issues facing the country than who is on the $20 bill, and no doubt the administration is guilty of far more serious offenses. But symbols matter. Backpedaling on putting the first African American woman on paper money tells women and girls and people of color that they don’t — and never have — mattered. Mr. Trump has found yet another way to show that he does not really aspire to be president of all Americans.

A Philosopher of Law on the Dangers of Trump’s Plan to Pardon American War Criminals

On Saturday, the Times reported that President Trump has requested paperwork that would allow him to quickly pardon several Americans who have been accused or convicted of war crimes, and who have become causes célèbres on Fox News. They include a former Green Beret who has been charged with murdering a man in Afghanistan and a Navy seal platoon chief who has been accused of murdering multiple people in Iraq, including a schoolgirl walking along a river, and whose trial is scheduled to begin next week. A third potential exoneree is part of a group of former Blackwater military contractors who were found guilty of murdering fourteen unarmed Iraqis in 2007. The Times reports that Trump is pursuing an expedited pardon process so that he can officially pardon these men over Memorial Day weekend.

To discuss what this decision would mean, and to understand the history of Americans wanting to place their own actions above the laws of war, I spoke by phone with Scott Shapiro, a professor of law and philosophy at Yale. Shapiro is the co-author, with Oona A. Hathaway, of “The Internationalists: How A Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World,” about the attempts after the First World War to institute a legal regime that would prevent a second one. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed why the most outwardly patriotic Americans have long been skeptical of military law, the message President Trump is sending the military, and the dangers of placing troops above the law.

When you saw the news that these pardons were a possibility, what was it that went through your mind? Were there historical parallels, or did it seem like we were in another era?

I thought, immediately, Oh, pardon the war criminals to own the libs—that this was an attempt to trigger me and people like me. The reason I say I’m a little bit surprised at myself for having that reaction was that there is a long history, especially among conservative thinkers, of mistrusting the laws of war and thinking that the prosecution and punishing of American service personnel for defending our country, but not being punctilious about the particular rules of engagement, is unjust and unfair. This brought to mind the My Lai massacre—that was as horrific an act as a violation of the laws of war as you get.

And yet William Calley [a lieutenant who led the Charlie Company’s massacre of hundreds of civilians at My Lai] was somewhat of a folk hero in the United States. The heroes of My Lai, who saved many civilians and reported Charlie Company for what they had done, were vilified by many in the political establishment. Nixon was incredibly upset that William Calley was being prosecuted. He only got three and half years [of house arrest, after Nixon had him removed from prison]. It’s not clear to me how different what Trump is doing is from what Nixon did in the nineteen-seventies.

When you say that there is a long history of conservatives being mistrustful of laws of war, do you mean both international ways of regulating what our troops can do in war, like some sort of world court, and also our own laws or the military’s own laws?

Yes. So John Bolton, for example, has waged a war on the International Criminal Court for many years, since the beginning of its existence, and spent an enormous amount of time when he was in the State Department going around the world, trying to get countries to sign what we’ll call the Article 98 agreements, which basically said that these countries would not coöperate with the court in prosecution of American service personnel, and then denied them foreign aid if they didn’t.

But his objection has been very much about the notion that an international tribunal will prosecute American service personnel. Whereas there is another strand that objects even to our own government, our own military, prosecuting our own service personnel, and there are several strains to it, some of them being understandable, some of them being quite reprehensible. When I say understandable, I think that there are arguments. I don’t think they carry the day, but let me just say that there are at least arguments that make sense.

So one of them is war is hell, and shit happens, and it’s very hard to hold soldiers to such high standards. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous expression, that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife,” comes to mind—the idea being that, if you’re in that situation, you can’t be expected to follow all the rules perfectly. There’s also the idea that there are too many rules, and that the rules are too constraining and that we’re tying, as they say, our boys’ hands. And it’s especially problematic in cases where there’s an asymmetry, where the U.S. military is fighting a group that doesn’t follow the rules. So it’s not just that we have a lot of rules, we’re fighting other militaries who are ostensibly bound by those rules, too. But, also, what do we do when they’re not following the rules, they hide among civilians.

Those, I think, are arguments that need to be taken seriously, and people have obviously debated them, and it’s not obvious what the solution should be in particular cases. I went and I watched a lot of the Fox News clips about these cases that it seems like Trump was responding to. And they sometimes use these arguments, but they also use the arguments like, “These are our guys and you need to protect them. They’re risking their lives for us and we have to protect them.” And it’s tribalism. Like, “These are our people and it’s ungrateful to turn on them.”

There’s also a sense, I think, that they’re killing terrorists, so what’s the problem? They’re eliminating evil people. And I think that there’s a particular Trumpian flavor to the assault here, which is that they’re attacking the integrity of the military-justice system much in the same way that Trump does when he attacked Mueller. The idea here being, Look, you can’t trust anyone.


Yeah. It’s particularly interesting to go after the military, which is, of course, the most trusted institution in the United States, about the worst people in the world, that is, the war criminals.

Trump had this aspect of his campaign where he would basically say, “I’m smarter than all the generals.” Do you remember that? Everyone remembers the McCain P.O.W. stuff, but there was this weird, understated, The military is not tough enough or smart enough anymore. It’s just another institution that’s been corroded with establishment figures.

And yet, one of the things that Trump has done is devolved a lot more responsibility down to the military, reversing the Obama scheme whereby military plans had to get extensive vetting by the political branches. So Trump is, on the one hand, saying, “I’m smarter than the military,” and yet, “Don’t bother me with this stuff. You deal with it.

I assume, over time, the military has over all got better about investigating abuses within its ranks. Do you have some sense of even a hundred years ago, the period you wrote about, how much there was a system for investigating the American military for misbehavior?

So I can tell you that my colleague John Fabian Witt has written a lot about this. In “Lincoln’s Code,” he talks about how the system that we have now really evolved from the military commissions set up in the Mexican-American War and then the Civil War, whereby the U.S. military had to figure out what they would do with people who violated the laws of war.

And so, at least from the perspective of the U.S. military, we’ve been working on this for almost two hundred years—and, funnily enough, so much of the laws of war in their modern form was American-driven. It’s a classic example, I think, of Trump trying to undermine institutions that Americans helped create. So it’s this strange feature, but a lot of times there’s a sense that the laws of war are foreign impositions on the American military, interfering with our sovereignty, when in fact they were developed by the U.S. military as a way of enforcing military discipline.

That’s, in some sense, the general point that people misunderstand about the laws of wars: that they really have their origins in military discipline, that militaries around the world recognized the need to have constraints on soldiers for the sake of having a well-run military. And so it’s usually in the military’s interest for service personnel to be constrained in the way that they are. I would imagine that many military commanders are unhappy about this move.

Trump is often compared to authoritarian figures in history. He’s often been compared to Andrew Jackson. But to what degree does Trump remind you of a certain type that you’ve written about, which is someone from a hundred years ago having a certain isolationist streak, but also just a very warlike personality, with extreme jingoism and nationalism, and a contempt for or racism toward other countries and other people. This pardon news being paired with Trump’s apparent uninterest in a war with Iran was interesting.

Well, bellicosity and racism and Eurocentrism contributed enormously to imperialism and colonialism and genocidal wars of the past, for sure. What is interesting is that these attitudes normally led to war rather than what is happening with Trump, which is that it’s being matched with a kind of isolationism. My own view—and I obviously can’t substantiate it—is that the reason Trump is an isolationist is because I don’t think he wants to spend money on brown people. That is, I think he feels, Why are we spending our money and spending lives trying to bring democracy and improve Iraq, or Syria, or spending money on fighting in Iran, where we’re just going to have to pour money into that country? Here, the xenophobia and racism actually contribute to isolationism.

The America Firsters don’t want to get into World War Two in part because they think, Why are we trying to save the Jews? Why are we pouring money to protect these ethnic minorities in Europe when who the hell cares about them? There are definitely strong historical echoes.

I’m not trying to draw a direct parallel, but the America First types who did not want to get America involved in a war in Europe had no problem asserting the Monroe Doctrine in the Western Hemisphere and insuring business interests in the United States were taken care of and expanded. And that would be my hunch about the type of war that Trump would be at least open to.

I think that’s right, though it’s hard to imagine what that case would be like. I’ve actually been surprised that Trump hasn’t said, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll just go take the money from them somehow.” I’m surprised that he hasn’t threatened some war in order to get the money back for the wall. He has said crazy things—“fire and fury”—about North Korea. Threatening a nuclear war is an outrageous thing to do. Saying, “If Mexico doesn’t pay for the wall, we’ll get it in some way,” doesn’t seem that much crazier. Of course, he seems to have no interest in Venezuela, so it’s hard to see what, exactly, the economic interests would be there. It’s so hard to know, and also tiresome to try to guess, what are you going to do next?

What are your biggest concerns, going forward, about what pardons like these would do?

I’m very worried about it. I think, historically, the origins of these rules emanate from military discipline and the sense that the military has to have control over soldiers and control their behavior and keep them focussed on the military mission at hand. And to follow the rules is extremely important for the success of the mission. The golden rule of counterinsurgency is, you want to make sure that you kill more terrorists than you make.

One of the cases that the New York Times reports about is pardoning this group of marines who urinated on deceased Afghans. Is it really helpful for our counterinsurgency mission for people to know that that’s what U.S. military personnel do, and the President just pardons it because it’s no big deal to pee on a dead Afghan?

There are so many ways that this is both an insult to the military and bad for the military. And the ironies of that are plenty.

Yeah, right. So there’s that. This is also really bad for morale. I’ve taught in R.O.T.C., I’ve taught these young officers in training, and they’re taught that these rules are super serious and that they really go to the essence of what it is to be an honorable officer. And then to have the President of the United States say, “Actually, the rules don’t really matter”—what does it do to their sense of what enterprise they’re participating in, No. 1? No. 2, how do they get their men to follow the rules if the Commander-in-Chief is saying it doesn’t matter? It’s just a recipe for disaster.

There are so many ironies here, but one of the cases that Trump is considering, based on the New York Times reports, is the case of the Blackwater military contractors. The Bush Administration tried so hard to get the Iraqis not to prosecute these people, because, they said, “Don’t worry, trust us. You can trust the American criminal-justice system. We’ll take care of it.” And they really held the Iraqi government at bay at a very difficult time with the idea that, We can take care of it.

Why would countries accept that going forward? They’d say, “Look what you’re doing.” So it’s not only bad from a military-mission perspective, but it’s also bad from the sovereigntist perspective. If what you’re really worried about is other countries exerting control over American service personnel, you’re giving them every reason to do it if you do this.

Or to want to create an international system where these things are taken care of, since America’s not going to take care of it on its own.

Yeah, exactly. It’s just more fuel for the people who say, “America has lost its moral way. We can’t trust them. We really need an international criminal court.”

I should also say that, for all these complex reasons of history and how Americans think of this stuff, at the same time, there’s probably a fairly simple thing going on, which is that, if this was not going on in Muslim countries, this probably would not have become a cause célèbre on Fox and the President might not be doing this.

Yeah. When Charlie Company mowed down men, women, children, old people, on the one hand, they were Vietnamese, and so, “Who cares?” But also, talk about historical parallels, after William Calley was convicted of murder, George Wallace visited him and said, “Look, I don’t see why we should be so upset about a soldier killing more communists.” And so, there is a way in which when you dehumanize and vilify a group, the fact that the military killed some more of them, well, how bad, really, is it?

The Economics of the Civil War

In 1805 there were just over one million slaves worth about $300 million; fifty-five years later there were four million slaves worth close to $3 billion. In the 11 states that eventually formed the Confederacy, four out of ten people were slaves in 1860, and these people accounted for more than half the agricultural labor in those states. In the cotton regions the importance of slave labor was even greater. The value of capital invested in slaves roughly equaled the total value of all farmland and farm buildings in the South.

.. Looking at Figure 1, it is hardly surprising that Southern slaveowners in 1860 were optimistic about the economic future of their region. They were, after all, in the midst of an unparalleled rise in the value of their slave assets.

.. The Northern states also had a huge economic stake in slavery and the cotton trade. The first half of the nineteenth century witnessed an enormous increase in the production of short-staple cotton in the South, and most of that cotton was exported to Great Britain and Europe. Figure 2 charts the growth of cotton exports from 1815 to 1860. By the mid 1830s, cotton shipments accounted for more than half the value of all exports from the United States. Note that there is a marked similarity between the trends in the export of cotton and the rising value of the slave population depicted in Figure 1. There could be little doubt that the prosperity of the slave economy rested on its ability to produce cotton more efficiently than any other region of the world.

.. The income generated by this “export sector” was a major impetus for growth not only in the South, but in the rest of the economy as well. Douglass North, in his pioneering study of the antebellum U.S. economy, examined the flows of trade within the United States to demonstrate how all regions benefited from the South’s concentration on cotton production (North 1961). Northern merchants gained from Southern demands for shipping cotton to markets abroad, and from the demand by Southerners for Northern and imported consumption goods. The low price of raw cotton produced by slave labor in the American South enabled textile manufacturers — both in the United States and in Britain — to expand production and provide benefits to consumers through a declining cost of textile products. As manufacturing of all kinds expanded at home and abroad, the need for food in cities created markets for foodstuffs that could be produced in the areas north of the Ohio River. And the primary force at work was the economic stimulus from the export of Southern Cotton. When James Hammond exclaimed in 1859 that “Cotton is King!” no one rose to dispute the point.

.. One “economic” solution to the slave problem would be for those who objected to slavery to “buy out” the economic interest of Southern slaveholders. Under such a scheme, the federal government would purchase slaves. A major problem here was that the costs of such a scheme would have been enormous. Claudia Goldin estimates that the cost of having the government buy all the slaves in the United States in 1860, would be about $2.7 billion (1973: 85, Table 1). Obviously, such a large sum could not be paid all at once. Yet even if the payments were spread over 25 years, the annual costs of such a scheme would involve a tripling of federal government outlays (Ransom and Sutch 1990: 39-42)! The costs could be reduced substantially if instead of freeing all the slaves at once, children were left in bondage until the age of 18 or 21 (Goldin 1973:85). Yet there would remain the problem of how even those reduced costs could be distributed among various groups in the population. The cost of any “compensated” emancipation scheme was so high that even those who wished to eliminate slavery were unwilling to pay for a “buyout” of those who owned slaves.

.. Beard and Hacker focused on the narrow economic aspects of these changes, interpreting them as the efforts of an emerging class of industrial capitalists to gain control of economic policy. More recently, historians have taken a broader view of the situation, arguing that the sectional splits on these economic issues reflected sweeping economic and social changes in the Northern and Western states that were not experienced by people in the South. The term most historians have used to describe these changes is a “market revolution.”

.. In 1860 6.1 million people — roughly one out of five persons in the United States — lived in an urban county. A glance at either the map or Table 2 reveals the enormous difference in urban development in the South compared to the Northern states. More than two-thirds of all urban counties were in the Northeast and West; those two regions accounted for nearly 80 percent of the urban population of the country. By contrast, less than 7 percent of people in the 11 Southern states of Table 2 lived in urban counties.

.. In the South, the picture was very different. Cotton cultivation with slave labor did not require local financial services or nearby manufacturing activities that might generate urban activities. The 11 states of the Confederacy had only 51 urban counties and they were widely scattered throughout the region. Western agriculture with its emphasis on foodstuffs encouraged urban activity near to the source of production. These centers were not necessarily large; indeed, the West had roughly the same number of large and mid-sized cities as the South. However there were far more small towns scattered throughout settled regions of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan than in the Southern landscape.

.. Settlement of western lands had always been a major bone of contention for slave and free-labor farms. The manner in which the federal government distributed land to people could have a major impact on the nature of farming in a region. Northerners wanted to encourage the settlement of farms which would depend primarily on family labor by offering cheap land in small parcels. Southerners feared that such a policy would make it more difficult to keep areas open for settlement by slaveholders who wanted to establish large plantations. This all came to a head with the “Homestead Act” of 1860 that would provide 160 acres of free land for anyone who wanted to settle and farm the land. Northern and western congressmen strongly favored the bill in the House of Representatives but the measure received only a single vote from slave states’ representatives. The bill passed, but President Buchanan vetoed it.

.. Southerners, with their emphasis on staple agriculture and need to buy goods produced outside the South, strongly objected to the imposition of duties on imported goods. Manufacturers in the Northeast, on the other hand, supported a high tariff as protection against cheap British imports. People in the West were caught in the middle of this controversy. Like the agricultural South they disliked the idea of a high “protective” tariff that raised the cost of imports. However the tariff was also the main source of federal revenue at this time, and Westerners needed government funds for the transportation improvements they supported in Congress.

.. In 1834 President Andrew Jackson created a major furor when he vetoed a bill to recharter the Second Bank of the United States. Jackson’s veto ushered in a period of that was termed “free banking” in the United States, where the chartering and regulation of banks was left entirely in the hands of state governments. Banks were a relatively new economic institution at this point in time, and opinions were sharply divided over the degree to which the federal government should regulate banks. In the Northeast, where over 60 percent of all banks were located, there was strong support by 1860 for the creation of a system of banks that would be chartered and regulated by the federal government. But in the South, which had little need for local banking services, there was little enthusiasm for such a proposal.

.. They see the economic conflict of North and South, in the words of Richard Brown, as “the conflict of a modernizing society”

.. James McPherson, argues that Southerners were correct when they claimed that the revolutionary program sweeping through the North threatened their way of life

.. Most writers argue that the decision for war on Lincoln’s part was not based primarily on economic grounds. However, Gerald Gunderson points out that if, as many historians argue, Northern Republicans were intent on controlling the spread of slavery, then a war to keep the South in the Union might have made sense. Gunderson compares the “costs” of the war (which we discuss below) with the cost of “compensated” emancipation and notes that the two are roughly the same order of magnitude — 2.5 to 3.7 billion dollars (1974: 940-42). Thus, going to war made as much “economic sense” as buying out the slaveholders.

.. the only way that the North could ensure that their program to contain slavery could be “enforced” would be if the South were kept in the Union. Allowing the South to leave the Union would mean that the North could no longer control the expansion of slavery anywhere in the Western Hemisphere

Killer Politicians

What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.

Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.

.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.

.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.

Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.

.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.

When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.

A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.

.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.