I sat in the courtroom all day on Wednesday as Bradley Manning’s trial wound its way to a tragic and demoralizing conclusion. I wanted to hear Eugene Debs, and instead I was trapped there, watching Socrates reach for the hemlock and gulp it down. Just a few minutes in and I wanted to scream or shout.
I don’t blame Bradley Manning for apologizing for his actions and effectively begging for the court’s mercy. He’s on trial in a system rigged against him. The commander in chief declared him guilty long ago. He’s been convicted. The judge has been offered a promotion. The prosecution has been given a playing field slanted steeply in its favor. Why should Manning not follow the only advice anyone’s ever given him and seek to minimize his sentence? Maybe he actually believes that what he did was wrong. But — wow — does it make for some perverse palaver in the courtroom.
This was the sentencing phase of the trial, but there was no discussion of what good or harm might come of a greater or lesser sentence, in terms of deterrence or restitution or prevention or any other goal. That’s one thing I wanted to scream at various points in the proceedings.
This was the trial of the most significant whistleblower in U.S. history, but there was no mention of anything he’d blown the whistle on, any of the crimes exposed or prevented, wars ended, nonviolent democratic movements catalyzed. Nothing on why he’s a four-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Nothing. Every time that the wars went unmentioned, I wanted to scream. War was like air in this courtroom, everybody on all sides militarized — and it went unnoticed and unmentioned.
What was discussed on Wednesday was as disturbing as what wasn’t. Psycho-therapists, and relatives, and Bradley Manning himself — defense witnesses all — testified that he had been wrong to do what he’d done, that he’d not been in his right mind, and that he is a likable person to whom the judge should be kind.
Should likable people get lesser sentences?
The prosecution focused, with much less success I think, on depicting Manning as an unlikable person. Should unlikable people get heavier sentences?
What, I wanted to scream, about the likability of blowing the whistle on major crimes? Shouldn’t that be rewarded, rather than being less severely punished?
There were some 30 of us observing the trial on Wednesday in the courtroom, many with “TRUTH” on our t-shirts, plus six members of the news media. Another 40 some people were watching a video feed in a trailer outside, and another 40 media folks were watching a video in a separate room. The defense and prosecution lawyers sat a few feet apart from each other, and I suppose the politeness of the operation was preferable to the violence that had led to it. But the gravity of threatening Manning with 90 years in prison seemed belied by the occasional joking with witnesses.
Before he’d become a criminal suspect, Manning had written in an online chat:
“If you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time… say, 8-9 months… and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do? . . . or Guantanamo, Bagram, Bucca, Taji, VBC for that matter . . . things that would have an impact on 6.7 billion people . . . say… a database of half a million events during the iraq war… from 2004 to 2009… with reports, date time groups, lat-lon locations, casualty figures… ? or 260,000 state department cables from embassies and consulates all over the world, explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective?”
Manning made clear what his concern and motivation were:
“i think the thing that got me the most… that made me rethink the world more than anything . . . was watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police… for printing ‘anti-Iraqi literature’… the iraqi federal police wouldn’t cooperate with US forces, so i was instructed to investigate the matter, find out who the ‘bad guys’ were, and how significant this was for the FPs… it turned out, they had printed a scholarly critique against PM Maliki… i had an interpreter read it for me… and when i found out that it was a benign political critique titled ‘Where did the money go?’ and following the corruption trail within the PM’s cabinet… i immediately took that information and *ran* to the officer to explain what was going on… he didn’t want to hear any of it… he told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the FPs in finding *MORE* detainees…”
Manning wanted the public informed:
“its important that it gets out… i feel, for some bizarre reason . . . it might actually change something . . . i just… dont wish to be a part of it… at least not now… im not ready…”
In other words, Manning didn’t want his name to be known, but he wanted the information to be known. This was, again, what Manning said during a pre-trial hearing:
” [W]e became obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and not being suspicious of and avoiding cooperation with our Host Nation partners, and ignoring the second and third order effects of accomplishing short-term goals and missions. I believe that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information contained within the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as [missed word] as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan. I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or even the desire to even to engage in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the effected environment everyday.”
Manning wanted to end wars that the majority of Americans think were wrong ever to have begun, and he helped to end them — at least in the case of Iraq. He’d had clearly thought out intentions, and they led to the sort of success he’d hoped for, at least to some degree. A full-blown public debate on abolishing the institution of war is yet to come.
The first witness on Wednesday was a therapist who had consulted with Manning while he was in the Army and in Iraq. This man noted that Manning had problems with his occupation, but gave no indication of what that occupation was. Manning was under stress, but the moral crisis discussed in the chat logs was never mentioned. Instead, Manning’s lawyer directed the witness to discuss “gender issues.” The witness said that Manning had informed him that he was gay, that being openly gay in the military was a violation of the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice), and that such violations were an exception to doctor-patient confidentiality. Neither defense nor prosecution followed up on that. Nor did they ask whether Manning had mentioned any concerns over other violations of the UCMJ of which he had become aware in the course of his duties. Perhaps not turning Manning in for being gay was simply the decent thing to do. But, then, wasn’t Manning’s effectively turning others in for their more serious abuses also the decent thing to do?
While I might have liked to see Manning choose a jury rather than a judge, hire a different lawyer, and argue for protection as a whistleblower, the defense’s case — on its own terms — was well done. The prosecution did not manage to respond effectively or even competently. A prosecutor, referring to comments in a chat log, asked the therapist what it would mean if a soldier called other soldiers ignorant rednecks. The witness replied that he couldn’t say that he’d never said such a thing himself. The whole room laughed. I clapped. I forgot for a moment about wanting to scream.
The next witness was a therapist hired to work for the defense. He said that Manning suffered fits of rage in the military. Shouldn’t he have? If you’d been dropped into the war on Iraq and seen what it was, how would you have most healthily reacted? This therapist believed Manning suffered from gender dysphoria, or gender identity disorder. The whole room seemed to suffer from basic human decency dysphoria. Manning also suffered, the therapist believed, from fetal alcohol syndrome and Asperger’s. Manning also, we were told, suffered from narcissism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These were related, apparently, to his post-adolescent idealism, a state this therapist considered wide-spread and normal, yet not quite acceptable, as it explained Manning’s so-called misdeeds. Manning, we heard, had been stressed out over his boyfriend, and as a result of his alcoholic parents. The notion that war could cause stress didn’t enter the courtroom.
Was Manning too stressed to appreciate the wrongness of his actions, his own lawyer asked.
The witness took that question and actually turned the discussion toward Manning’s whistleblowing in his answer, suggesting that Manning had found injustices and believed he had an oath to uphold by exposing them. This therapist, however, believed that if Manning had had a friend to talk to, he might not have blown the whistle on anything.
How did stress impact his thought process, asked Manning’s lawyer. It impaired it, the therapist explained. Manning suffered from Post-Adolescent Idealism (if only that were contagious! I wanted to scream). Manning underestimated how much trouble he’d be in. The worst he believed could happen to him would be separation from the Army, this expert informed us.
Back in the real world in which Manning had written the messages in the published chat logs that exposed him, Manning had had this to say:
“i wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy . . . i think im in more potential heat than you ever were [speaking to the snitch who turned him in] . . . Hilary Clinton, and several thousand diplomats around the world are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning, and finds an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format to the public.”
What other impressions did the therapist have of Bradley Manning? Well, Manning had a very consistent system of beliefs.
I wonder if the witness knew what Bradley was going to say on the stand in just a few hours.
The prosecution’s cross-examination of the first therapist had been so incompetent that even the judge grew fed-up. This second one was no better. The prosecutor managed to get the witness to talk about Manning’s supposed narcissism, grandiosity, arrogance, and haughtiness, but the witness described Post-Adolescent Idealism as so widespread as to be considered normal. (Wouldn’t that be nice!)
Did Manning know that what he was doing was illegal, the prosecutor asked. Yes, the therapist said. There was no objection from the defense, of course.
Was personal recognition a motive? No.
Would Manning commit the misconduct again? (This was the only moment that bordered on President Obama’s much-beloved looking forward.) I don’t know, was the answer.
If in the future he saw something that violated his sense of morality would he take action again? Well, he’s been pretty consistent with his principles.
Before Manning reversed his principles on the stand, there was one other witness to testify: Manning’s older sister. Her testimony was stunning. I nearly cried. A number of people did openly cry. She described a family in which both parents were alcoholics. Her and Bradley’s mother was drunk every day, and a mean drunk at that. Their father was nearly as bad. Manning’s sister, 11 years older than he, raised him more than anyone else. Their mother drank through her pregnancy with Bradley. He was tiny and underfed. And things got worse as the parents split up, the mother became suicidal, the sister fled. If this testimony were aired on television, people would discuss it — in tears — for many months. There would be endless discussions of each tangential topic, including alcohol, fetal alcohol syndrome, child abuse, rural isolation, divorce, older sisters, and — of course — whether traitors can be excused because they had bad childhoods.
And yet, I wanted to scream out: Why aren’t we analyzing the people who had better or worse childhoods than Manning and all failed to do what he did? What about their mental health? What about their Blind Obedience Disorder?
Manning’s sister said that he had calmed down and matured during the past three years. No mention of his naked isolation cell. No mention of the existential threat hanging over him. No mention of how clear-minded and principled he appears to have been back when he was supposedly immature.
Then, Manning made his sworn statement. He said he was sorry his actions had hurt people, despite no evidence having shown that they did. He said he was sorry his actions hurt the United States, whereas clearly his actions benefitted the United States, allowing us much greater access into what our secretive government is doing in our name. Manning questioned how he could have possibly believed he knew better than his superiors.
It’s an interesting question. Manning went into the Army in hopes of receiving money for college. He was entering a hostile world. Loyalty to buddies did not overpower loyalty to humanity, in Manning’s case, because the Army wasn’t his buddies. So, Manning looked at the horrors of war and said to himself: I can shine a light, and that light can fix this. We can, Bradley Manning believed, have a peaceful government of, by, and for the people.
The next and last witness was Bradley’s aunt, who told a very sympathetic tale paralleling Bradley’s sister’s. She concluded by asking the judge to consider Manning’s difficult start in life, and the fact that Bradley thought he was doing the right thing when he was not thinking clearly at all.
I never screamed.
I took off my “TRUTH” shirt.
David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.