The sentencing of Bradley Manning

By Jamie Brooke

This week saw Army Colonel Judge Denise Lind sentence whistle-blower Bradley Manning to 35 years’ imprisonment. The divisive American, seen as a traitor, political prisoner or folk-hero, was convicted of nineteen of the twenty one charges against him, mostly brought under the Espionage Act 1917.

The sentence was met with mixed reactions from US and international commentators. Many came out in defence of Bradley Manning. Notable amongst them was Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent, who described it as ‘one of the most important watersheds in US history’. Many newspapers and TV networks, however, ran stories regarding Bradley Manning’s sexuality and mental state instead of discussing the fundamental issues of democracy raised by the case.

Manning released more than seven hundred thousand intelligence files to the site Wikileaks, having exhausted reporting channels within the military establishment upon uncovering abuses committed by the military.

Amongst these was the revelation that there have been 109,032 ‘violent deaths’ in Iraq, including those of 66,081 civilians. Also included in the leaked content was the video ‘collateral murder’, in which the crew of a US helicopter are seen shooting down nine people including two Reuters journalists.

Hedges suggests that ‘under the military code of conduct and international law, the soldier had a moral and legal obligation to report the war crimes he witnessed. But this argument was ruled off-limits,’ for the defence attorneys, leading him to describe it as a ‘show trial’. This may be something of an overstatement from the war-scarred commentator, considering the worst of the charges – aiding the enemy – was eventually dropped by the prosecution.

They argued Bradley Manning – who was 22 at the time he released the files – had risked the lives of government workers, caused extensive damage to the military and disrupted diplomatic missions. They did not argue that any specific person had lost their life as a result of the disclosures.

This is obviously in contrast to the killing of unarmed civilians in Baghdad in 2007 by the helicopter gunship soldiers Manning exposed. The video ‘collateral murder’ is publicly available (warning – graphic).

The law governing aerial warfare has seen minimal development since the Second World War. Its history has been mired in abuses, ranging from crop eradication in Afghanistan to indiscriminate heavy handed attacks in Iraq. The Geneva Convention 1949, as amended by Protocol 1 of 1977, does establish rules regarding illegitimate targets on land and rules concerning the protection of citizens.

This is of particular relevance as the situation in Syria worsens. The conflict near Russia’s doorstep, were it to escalate, would predominantly be characterised by aerial combat. Diplomatic relations are highly strained, but fears that it may evolve into a scenario like those in Bosnia, Chechnya or Kosovo ought to be cause to keep the door ajar for continued discussion.

The military code of conduct Hedges refers to is a set of accumulated doctrines and precedents. Notable here is the US Department of the Army Field Manual FM27-10. The provisions in Chapter 8, paragraph 495 state that:

In the event of violation of the law of war, the injured party may legally resort to remedial action of the following types:

  1. Publication of the facts, with a view to influencing public opinion against the offending belligerent

Bradley Manning would, then, presumably not have been able to use this justification as he is not the injured party. There were no injured parties – they were all shot dead.

The apathy that has been touted by the corporate media is a major cause for concern. When abuses occur abroad the security of citizens in the homeland is jeopardised, as radicalisation may occur in response to war crimes going unreported and unpunished. It is the role of the fourth estate to ensure debate is maintained so as to allow problems to surface before situations escalate unduly, risking the lives of the domestic citizenry.

The ‘rules of war’ are not set in stone, however the extent to which certain premises have been entrenched – since the bloody destructiveness of two total wars – should be substantial enough cause for the US authorities to pursue lines of enquiry relating to the offences raised.

The concerns shared by Bradley Manning, most notably the excessive violence in the ‘collateral murder’ video, ought to prompt America to at least justify those who died in Baghdad on that day in 2007 – if not for the good of its own citizens – then for the peace of mind of the international community as yet another conflict looms heavy.

Bradley Manning was cleared of the most grave of charges – aiding the enemy – despite the somewhat sensitive nature of the information he shared. This is one small glint of light in an otherwise bleak moment in the history of America’s endless pursuit for freedom.

Shortly after the sentencing David Coombs, the lawyer representing Bradley Manning, told a press conference that he would be formally requesting a Presidential pardon next week. Once again the sturdiness of checks and balances in the US system have been called into question, as have the practices that were allowed to develop during the Bush era and the role of military courts.

I am of the opinion that a civilian retrial would be preferable to a Presidential pardon as it would serve to bring further abuses to light in a way that doesn’t further accrue Presidential war powers. It would though raise questions appertaining to double jeopardy.

The Manning case raises questions regarding conflicts between the first and fifth amendments to the US Constitution, as well as a moral question as to when, if ever, burying the truth can ever be justified. President Obama is yet to comment despite calls to do so.