COMMENTARY

Free Chelsea Manning

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“I understand that my actions violated the law. I regret that my actions hurt or harmed the US. It was never my intent to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people.” 

I remember the first time I saw the US Apache video in the Iraq War, leaked thanks to whistle blower Chelsea Manning. For 30 minutes, I witnessed American soldiers murder innocent civilians. I heard the soldier’s claim that the scattered running bodies below them were carrying weapons, I saw no weapons. I watched two unarmed civilians, later identified as Reuters journalists, drag a bleeding body into a medical van. Seconds later, the soldiers “request to engage” and the van in blowed up. “Fire, over.” For a moment, I thought I was watching a video game and not the footage of “a day in the life of an American solider in Iraq.” But reality struck, this was indeed reality. A reality, previously hidden to American citizens and international observers. I remember the video finally ending and I didn’t move, I didn’t speak. I could only sit and soak up the horror of what I just witnessed.

To be honest, I did not have high moral expectations of our military might. I know that for a country to consistently invade the rest of the world for resources and power, it must not be administering peace. Violence is expected, but from the position of American privilege, never did I think I would witness the reality of the rest of the world, terror. 

Chelsea Manning did the right thing. She gave information to Wikileaks, to expose what she saw as wrong and unjust. She didn’t necessarily do the “American” thing, because America since it’s inception, massacred Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and now manipulates it’s own citizens by ignoring this past. That of course, is wrong and unjust. Manning did what any person with compassion and a conscience would do. She showed us the truth.

A few months ago, I had an friend tell me over lunch, he was thinking about joining the military.

What?!, I said.

As a daughter of a Vietnam veteran, I can attest to the mental health issues this man would face for the rest of his life after serving in war, and presumably he would serve because we are always at war. Also, as a student of Latin American studies, a region historically plagued by U.S. military intervention, I learned what happens when a democratic country experiences a U.S. backed dictatorship.

In the cases of the military coup d’états in Argentina (1976) and Chile (1973),  first and foremost–all the young men begin disappearing. Kidnapped in the night, the country is left without an able bodied resistance. Meanwhile, the obvious radicals, leftists, professors and journalists are captured and killed. No dissent can survive in a dictatorship. Then, anyone else who dares to even question the newly illegally appointed government will also disappear into the night, and the sounds of torture will haunt the neighbors basement. No trials, no explanation.The wealthy conservatives save their lives by fleeing. Finally, all that is left are the mothers and grandmothers holding hands and mourning their husbands, their sons, their nephews, their daughters, their nieces, their spirits and their country. Wailing, and asking why?* 

As my friend started to justify his desire to fly airplanes as a short-term career move and the dream of a GI bill tuition waiver, I stopped him.  In the few minutes I had of his attention, I opened up my computer and played the leaked video of the US Apache helicopter in Baghdad. Slowly, I saw the progression of his face drop with the look of awe and disgust in witnessing war crimes. I didn’t need to say anymore. I only had to ask if he was willing to perform the same duties. Silence. 

Regardless of branch or country of loyalty, military service means taking orders and never asking questions. After countless hours of lecture and training, plus the promises of patriotic honor, soldiers carry out duties they might have never done otherwise as a civilian. Murder, suppression, brutality, and a life without choice. The environment of order, regulations, and discipline condition soldiers to perform the most atrocious acts. All the while, we sit back and relax benefitting from our tax dollars used to pay the soldiers for our security.

On August 21, the American Justice system under the Obama administration sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison. At age 25, she might not see the free world again until she is 60  years old. As a dishonorably charged veteran, where will she go? what benefits can she collect? will she be offered medical services, including mental health care? where will her family be? dare I ask, how many more wars will the American government, unlawfully wage?

To contextualize this case in history, Manning’s defense attorney David Coombs noted–

“There have been similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy, the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott decision, McCarthyism, and the Japanese interment camps, to name a few. I am confident that many decisions made after 9/11 will be viewed in a similar light.”

Coombs statement reflects the severity of injustice taking place with the court’s decision against Manning. How will we remember this case?

Within 10 years, Manning will be eligible for parole. So there is hope that she may live a life outside bars, but his freedom could come sooner than that, if the request made by Manning’s lawyer for a pardon is approved by Obama. For a president that has demonstrated his leadership in areas such as immigrant deportations, nonviolent imprisonments and aiding corporations, Manning has a better chance escaping from military prison.

*For more information: read Tina Rosenberg‘s Children of Cain.

**this article has been updated for gender pronouns

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