The prevailing irony of the Chelsea Manning verdict is that no one has served any time, or been charged with any crime, for any of the atrocities revealed in the documents that Manning leaked to Wikileaks. Regardless of how highly you may think of Manning herself, or what she did, the disturbing nature of what our armed forces were engaged in – cruel assaults on Iraqi civilians, torture – should have prompted sweeping reforms, investigations, prosecutions, and convictions among those responsible. Yet here we are, years later, and the only person who’s going to see jail time from this mess is Manning. I myself find myself in agreement with Scott Lemieux over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, who says, “I don’t object to Manning being charged with a crime. I certainly strongly object to the way he was treated in prison. And I think the idea that his leaks merit a 35-year sentence is absurd.” (Charles Pierce is also good here; in other news, the sun rose in the east.)
There is certainly a debate to be had about the merits and length of Manning’s sentence, and I’ll leave that to those with a better command of the facts than I. My shooting is from the hip, and my posting is from the gut, and besides, I find that particular minutia to be beside what I feel is the larger point, which is, again, that the only one charged as a result of the crimes that were committed in our name during the ill-advised and criminal Second Iraq War is Manning, who told us what we did. As Digby reminds us, “For revealing army war crimes Pfc. Bradley Manning has already done far more time in prison than Lieutenant William Calley did for committing them.” (William Calley being, of course, the man responsible for the American massacre at My Lai in Vietnam during our extended stay there.)
You may be unsurprised to learn that this puts me in mind of pop culture, and those who know me will be particularly unsurprised to learn that the pop culture in question is The Wire, my personal societal Rosetta Stone. For those of you unfamiliar, a brief recap of the first season: the Barksdale Organization, a group of drug dealers led by Avon Barksdale. The Barksdale Organization has control of most of the good territory on Baltimore’s west side (“good territory” in this instance meaning “good places to sell drugs”), and they’ve gotten and held it because they’re not afraid to murder anyone who gets in their way. This includes rivals and, importantly, witnesses. Early in the first episode D’Angelo Barksdale, Avon’s nephew, is on trial for murder; it’s established later that he did, in fact, commit it. One eyewitness identifies him as the shooter, while the other one, who has clearly been coerced, retracts her initial witness statements and lies in court, saying that it was not D’Angelo who did the shooting
William Gant, the first witness, is rewarded for his honesty and bravery with a bullet to the head at the end of the first episode. Nakeesha Lyles, the second witness, is murdered late in the season, as the Barksdale Organization (now weak and crumbling due to an extended police investigation) seeks to clean up loose ends. Middle class white people might ask, when confronted with issues of gang violence or drug problems in poor urban neighborhoods, why people don’t simply go to the police, and The Wire’s answer is, “because if they speak out, they get killed.” This is borne out later in the series – a young kid’s house gets bombed because he’s suspected of snitching, a young man is murdered because he was seen with the police. The fear (the terror) of reprisal creates an environment where the larger crimes, such as murder, receive little to no punishment, while the comparatively minor social crime of betraying one’s nominal neighbors to an out-group (in this case, the police) is punished with death or the threat of violence.
Many of the documents leaked by Manning contained no wrongdoing, and some were, at worst, embarrassing to the US (such as the private diplomatic communications between Americans about foreign officials). However, plenty revealed disturbing details of how our armed forces were acting, actions which would be considered by anyone with a conscience (or whose surnames were not Rumsfeld or Cheney, but I repeat myself) to be criminal. A world where both Manning and those whose deeds he brought to light go to prison is a world in which I can live; a world where only Manning is punished, and excessively so, is not. It is this latter world in which we live, and it is the same world of The Wire, a world where the true crimes go unpunished and the revelation of those crimes is met with a crushing criminal sentence, and with torture at the hands of your countrymen while you wait for “justice” to be done.
The Justice Department has recommended that, because Bush, Cheney, and the other architects of the ruinous Second Iraq War, and of the policies which led to torture – the same torture perpetrated against an American citizen – becoming an acceptable tool for interrogations be allowed to walk free because, basically, they were just doing their jobs. That’s not an excuse. A job isn’t a “get out of jail free” card; you should perform your job, whatever that may be, to the best of your ability, for sure, but it’s not a sacred trust. And if, in doing your job, you find yourself doing something detrimental to those around you, or to the health of your society, or that would cause catastrophic consequences across the world stage, you should stop, or you should find another job. A number of years ago there was a spate of pharmacists who refused to give out birth control to women, in the interest of preventing some imagined societal collapse that might be caused by young people fucking without fear. I thought they were foolish, and had little sympathy for them, but I do believe they’re within their rights and obligations to themselves to refuse to do so. I also think they need to find another job, A.S.A. Possible.
So Bush, Cheney, and the gang had an obligation, to themselves and to their country, to either not do what they did and not order what they did, in fact, order, or they should have stepped the fuck off, had the grace and courage to say, “Sorry, I’m out. I thought I could hang, turns out I can’t.” I realize I’m off in the weeds, in a fantasy world, but I really do believe that we should expect that kind of humility and self-awareness from our leaders.
They didn’t do this, and we destroyed a great deal of property, killed a bunch of people who had no reason to be killed, and destroyed the psyches of a generation of soldiers, and there should be accountability. There should be a cost, and that cost can’t be deferred because you were doing your job. You were bad at your job. That’s where all the problems came from. And part of the cost is that, yes, you don’t get to do it anymore, but you also need to serve some hard time. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld; these men should never see their families again, and their names should be curses to all good and decent people, to the point where a child named George, or Richard, or Donald, is guaranteed a lifetime of bullying and ridicule. They should never see the sun again, and die alone.
But they walk free. And a young private, confused and depressed (and possibly bad, or at least unsuited, to her job) to be sure, but brave as well, who shed a little light on what we had allowed ourselves to become, under the “leadership” of these men, will spend a great deal of her adult life in prison. She will be denied the hormone therapy she needs to properly transition to her chosen identity. She will be ridiculed, bullied, abused. She will get out in, at the very least, 9.5 years, by the estimates I’ve seen, unless she is shown some leniency by the review boards she is next scheduled to stand in front of, or unless she is shown some unexpected clemency by a President who has shown himself to be heartless when it comes to whistleblowing and childish in his impulse to lash out at those who criticize the national security apparatus that is making us, as a nation, no more secure. Robert Bales was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of 16 in Afghanistan, but some deep, cultural shame seems to be preventing us from seeking the same justice for the crimes committed in Iraq, some blindness that makes complicit criminals of a nation.
And the next time someone working in a sensitive and important job considers revealing what they have seen and heard to someone who might do something about it, might right the wrongs they’re seeing, they will see how this country treats those who speak out, those who witness. They will think of their country, a country content to let murderers and torturers walk free while those who speak truth are imprisoned, and they will put their head down, and continue to work.
Land of the free. Home of the brave.