During his June-July 2013 court martial, Private First Class Bradley Manning sat impassive. He had been in custody from May 2010, which included harsh treatment for almost a year at the military base in Quantico, Virginia. Manning had already pleaded guilty to 10 charges in February—these were the minor ones—and he held that the remainder (12 charges) should be thrown out by the military because he had released secret material to reveal “the true cost of war”, including war crimes. The military did not agree. It pursued the case, and the judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, found him guilty of 17 of the 22 charges, including the serious charges of espionage and theft.
Judge Denise Lind dismissed the charge of “aiding and abetting” the enemy, which would have occasioned the death penalty. Because many of the charges overlap, the judge conceded that the maximum sentence would be about 90 years, a life spent in prison.
Manning is now 25. He was 23 when arrested on May 2010 after a hacker named Adrian Lamo turned him in to the authorities. In an Internet chat, Manning told Lamo that he had leaked classified material to WikiLeaks, the portal set up in 2006 to host disclosures from whistle-blowers. Lamo, who had been convicted in 2004 for hackingThe New York Times website, contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which in turn called the United States Armed Forces. Manning believed that what he had done was just because he had been privy to classified information that suggested war crimes. He did not go up the chain of command because at least the most spectacular incident of an alleged war crime had been denied by the U.S. armed forces publicly.
In one of his chats with Lamo, Manning linked to a Wikipedia story about an attack on Iraqi civilians from 2007. “The one below that is mine too,” he wrote on May 21, 2010. This was not the only document released by Manning. He had already released hundreds of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables, U.S. documents on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (the Afghan and Iraq War Logs) and evidence of another war crime (the Granai air strike of May 4, 2009, which was lost during infighting at WikiLeaks). But this 2007 document was the most significant one. On February 28, Manning reflected on this video: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me was the seemingly delightful bloodlust [the U.S. helicopter pilots] appeared to have. They seemed not to value human life by referring to them as ‘dead bastards’ and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers…. For me, this seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.” Manning wanted to release the video thinking that “the public would be as alarmed as me”. What happened next was not what the young man anticipated.
On July 12, 2007, two Apache helicopters flew over the east el-Amin neighbourhood of New Baghdad. The pilots spotted some men walking down the road. Two of the men were employees of Reuters, Namir Noor-Eldeen, a photographer, and Saeed Chmagh, a driver and fixer for the journalists. A pilot requested permission to shoot them because they thought Noor-Eldeen’s camera was an RPG launcher. This beggars belief because Noor-Eldeen was holding a 70-200 zoom lens that is at most 14 inches long; an RPG launcher is four feet long. By the tone of the voice of the pilots it was clear that they wanted to kill (“look at those dead bastards”). After shooting the men, an injured Chmagh tries to crawl away and one pilot says, “Come on buddy, all you gotta do is pick up a weapon.” The pilots bristle with impatience as they await confirmation to fire from the base and then engage with ferocity despite the fact that not one bullet is fired from the ground.
A van that was passing by stopped to pick up the wounded. The pilots fired at the van, killing the driver, Saleh Mutashar, and grievously wounding his two children (aged six and nine). The pilots cheered each other for the clean shot, “Right though the windshield!” A Bradley fighting vehicle arrived on the scene, finding the two injured children in the van and the carnage before them. U.S. Army Specialist Ethan McCord later said that there was a cavalier attitude towards the injured children, their father dead in the van. “The first thing I thought of was my children at home,” McCord said, but his commander ordered him to leave them and first secure the scene.
The U.S. military said that the deaths resulted from a firefight. Reuters’ editor-in-chief David Schlesinger said in July 2007, “Our preliminary investigation raises real questions about whether there was fighting at the time the two men were killed. For the sake of their memory and for the sake of all journalists in Iraq we need a thorough and objective investigation that will help us and the military learn lessons that will improve the safety of journalists in the future.” No such investigation took place. Reuters attempted to get information, including a video shot from the helicopters and voice communications, but the U.S. authorities refused to oblige. Two years later, TheWashington Post’s reporter David Finkel wrote about the incident in his book The Good Soldiers, quoting from what appeared to be a transcript of the Apache communications with their base. Reuters had not been given access to the video or audio material, and the U.S. military continued to say that their internal investigation had proved that this was not a violation of the rules of engagement.
It was this video that Manning saw while he was posted at Forward Operating Base Hammer, near Baghdad, in late 2009. It was this video, along with the other material he found on the vast amount of classified information on the U.S. Army network, that he turned over to WikiLeaks. At a dramatic press conference in Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2010, a month before Manning’s arrest, WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange released the video under the name “Collateral Murder”. It caused a sensation, but no arrests were made and no further investigation was pursued. Ethan McCord and some other troops did, however, speak out saying, “What happened then was not an isolated incident. Stuff like that happens on a daily basis in Iraq.”
A military report noted that in future journalists should wear vests that clearly identify them as the press. Noor-Eldeen made his name as a photojournalist with a remarkable photograph during the most dangerous battles in Mosul, when he took a picture of a masked insurgent with an RPG launcher carrying a vest emblazoned with the word Police. Mistaken for carrying one of those RPG launchers and without his own vest, Noor-Eldeen was shot and then denied justice. It was towards this end that Manning leaked the video.
During the lead up to the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War, the Allies met in London to draft some protocols by which to judge the Nazi leadership. A crucial defence made by lower rank Nazis was BefehlistBefehl, or an order is an order. They claimed that they had not designed Nazi policy but had simply followed orders. The Nuremberg Charter, which was the basis by which the Allies charged the Nazis, invalidated this defence. It argued that to follow an order that seems illegal and not challenge it at all is illegal in the eyes of international law (Principle IV of the Charter). If a functionary is given what appears to be an illegal order or is privy to evidence of illegality, it is a legal (not just a moral) imperative to refuse the order or at least lodge a protest against it. General Telford Taylor, Chief Counsel for the U.S. at Nuremberg, coined the term “Nuremberg Defence”. When Manning saw the videos of what appeared to be illegal acts, or war crimes, he was—by the protocol of the Nuremberg Defence—under an obligation to speak out. He observed a war crime being covered up, saw evidence of it, and so released it to the general public through WikiLeaks. Unfortunately for Manning, such a defence was not available to him largely because the U.S. military and its political leadership have refused to acknowledge that either New Baghdad (2007) or Granai (2009) are war crimes.
The military was not a kind place to Manning. An openly gay man who is just over five feet, Manning was harassed from the day he joined up in 2007. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy of the U.S. military vis-a-vis gay members of the armed forces constrained him. This is, of course, part of the context of Manning’s disillusionment with the military. Manning served in Iraq, fighting a war that was itself a “war against peace” in the Nuremberg sense and so an illegal war (as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in 2004). He was aware of the “crimes against humanity” perpetuated in the U.S.-run prisons and he was aware of the American Archipelago that runs from the “black sites” to the Guantanamo Bay prison. What came before his computer screen was vivid evidence of one war crime that was not going to be prosecuted, and then of another (from Afghanistan in May 2009 that killed up to 145 civilians) that was not going to see the light of day.
It was a simple choice for a young man—to remain silent and so violate the Nuremberg Charter or to speak out and bring the full weight of the U.S. system on his shoulders. Manning chose the latter. The consequences are dire. Much of his life will now be spent in prison. He is guilty in the eyes of the U.S. military court. It is to be seen how history will judge him, but it is clear that he lived up to the values of international law.
Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013).
A version of this article originally ran in Frontline.