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Crimes and Punishment (or Not)

The military judge in Pvt. Bradley Manning’s kangaroo trial has announced his sentence, but right now I’m thinking about another soldier: William Laws Calley.

A Second Lieutenant in the Army during the Vietnam War, Calley famously was convicted of slaughtering 22 innocent men, women and children, including babies, during a day-long slaughterfest in which he and his men massacred over 500 unarmed Vietnamese.

It was an appalling war crime, and Calley, far from accepting his responsibility, initially tried to blame the atrocity on a helicopter gunship. But at least one of the men in his unit eventually told the truth and ratted him out. If Calley had any mitigating defense it was that he, like many other unit commanders in the field in Nam, were being ordered to do this kind of thing by their senior officers, who were getting promotions based on the “body counts” of “Viet Cong” that their men could rack up, and just as today the Pentagon calls every human being in Afghanistan or Yemen or Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province that it blows up or guns down a “terrorist,” back in the Vietnam War, killed Vietnamese, even those that were still too young to stand up, were labeled “VC.”

I’m thinking about William Laws Calley because, after he was convicted of killing those 22 human unarmed beings by a military court, he was sentenced to life in prison, doing hard labor at Leavenworth. But his trial was always controversial. The pro-war crowd had a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort it out” mentality when it came to the Vietnam War, and to many, Calley was a hero. Jimmy Carter, who at the time was governor of Georgia, was running for the redneck vote back in 1971, not the Nobel Peace Prize, and he protested the verdict by signing an order establishing a “American Fighting Man’s Day” and by calling on all red-blooded American Georgians to drive with their lights on for a week.

In fact, Calley never served a day of that richly deserved hard time. The following morning, President Richard Nixon commuted it to house arrest at Ft. Benning, pending his appeal of the conviction. Later, a general reviewing the sentence reduced it to 20 years, which was later reduced to 10 by the Secretary of the Army.

In the end, Lt. Calley’s incredible shrinking sentence was cut to three and a half years of house arrest. But even before that sentence was served out, he was released on appeal by a federal judge, who found that Calley’s trial had been prejudiced by negative pretrial publicity (see the photo, one of many, of the slaughter he oversaw and participated in personally), and by “inadequate notice of the charges” against him. In 1974, President Nixon (himself about to be driven from office after being impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors), granted a limited presidential pardon to Calley, and he was a free man.

I’m thinking about Lt. Calley at this moment because I just learned that Pvt. Bradley Manning was sentenced, not to life, but to 35 years in Leavenworth. That sentence, for a 26-year-old, is almost a death sentence, which was the whole point (the prosecutors told the judge they wanted her to “make an example” of Manning.)

Pvt. Manning killed nobody. Indeed, his “crime” was releasing secret documents exposing the routine slaughter of civilians in Iraq by American troops, as well as other grotesque and corrupt behavior by the United States military and the US government–none of which anyone has been prosecuted for. But a military judge in his case found him guilty of six counts of espionage, though it was espionage of a strange type: he wasn’t said to be working for any other country or any enemy of the US. He was trying to make the US a better place by revealing what the military was doing to the broad American public, hoping that they would demand better.

Not only that, but talk about pretrial publicity! The president himself declared Manning “guilty” in a public setting, before Manning had even been charged. It doesn’t get much more prejudicial than that! And there was almost two years of time before Manning actually went to trial, during which time the corporate media, if it reported on the case at all, just echoed and enhanced the president’s pre-judgement, But worse yet, if the charges brought against Calley were not timely, what about Manning, who spent for over a year in military lock-ups without any charge at all before the Pentagon finally told him and his attorneys what he was going to be charged with! He was also subjected to conditions that a UN human rights observateur, and many others who monitored his treatment, declared to be torture under international norms and US law: weeks on end in solitary, often without any clothing in a cold cell, sleep deprivation and other offenses.

If Calley’s pre-trial treatment merited a reversal of his conviction, Manning’s treatment merits not just revocation of his sentence, but a full-blown presidential apology.

Instead, for his actions, Manning was today sentenced to 35 years in Leavenworth — the very prison Lt. Calley never had to serve time in. President Obama’s Pentagon initially wanted a life sentence for Manning, and later, after winning guilty verdicts on most of the inflated charges leveled against him, asked the judge for a 60-year sentence, which in the case of a 26-year-old, was really pretty much the same thing.

In a statement written after learning of his sentence that was read out publicly by his lawyer, Manning requested a pardon, but did not mince words or seek to apologize for his “crimes.” Instead, he boldly defended what he had done in exposing the criminal behavior of the US in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the broader “war” on terror. He said:

“…in our efforts to meet this risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity.  We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan.  When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians.  Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.

“In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture.  We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government.  And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror…

“Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott decision, McCarthyism, the Japanese-American internment camps—to name a few.  I am confident that many of our actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.

“As the late Howard Zinn once said, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

He concluded:

“When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.

“If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.  I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”

There are already calls for President Obama to do what Nixon did for Calley almost fifty years ago: to pardon Pvt. Manning. You won’t be hearing those calls coming from the right as you did for killer Calley, but they should be pouring in from the rest of us who know he did the right thing.

Calley, now 70, did eventually apologize, with what appeared to be a sincere sense of contrition, surprising his super-patriot hosts at a Kiwanis Club dinner in his “honor” in 2009 by saying:

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry….If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.”

I wonder if, lying awake on dark nights, Commander-in-Chief Obama, or the sycophantic careerist Manning judge, Col. Denise Lind (who was promised a promotion while she was in charge of hearing this case), ever have such regrets about their crimes.

DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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