Column Bradley Manning broke the law, but he placed more value on morality than legality

Watching ‘Collateral Damage’ – footage that shows US military opening fire on men and children in Baghdad – one can see why Manning wanted the American people to see what was happening in their name, writes Neil Walsh.

OF ALL THE documents, footage and cables which Bradley Manning was yesterday found guilty of leaking, perhaps the most important is the video footage which has come to be known as Collateral Murder (viewer discretion advised).

The video is a military helicopter’s crosshair view of the War On Terror one Baghdad afternoon. Its grainy slaughter is underscored with the real-time conversation of the “Aerial Weapons Team” as the incident unfolds in July 2007. Two Reuters journalists are among a group of men, some of whom were believed by the AW Team to be carrying Rocket Propelled Grenades and machine guns. Unprovoked, the AW Team opens fire on the men – not warning shots, but lethal fire, slaying indiscriminately.

A vivid record of a war crime

Shortly after this mass execution, a van arrives on the scene. Its occupants disembark and begin to assist the injured and dying men. The crackle of the chopper’s machine-guns resume as the AW Team now opens fire on the rescuers. Two children sitting in the passenger seats of the van feel the weight of the AH-64 Apache’s artillery as first the van windscreen, and then their fragile bodies are smashed under the bullets. Somehow 5-year-old Doaha and her 10-year-old brother Sahad survive this exercise in liberating Iraq.

At no time in the incident did anyone in the first group of men, nor those who came to their aid attempt to attack the American soldiers in the Apache helicopter. The conversation of the soldiers needs to be heard to be believed. Had the dialogue appeared in some Oliver Stone polemic decrying the barbarity of the US Army, it would be criticised for being over-egged and forced: “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards”.

Brief clips of Collateral Murder have been broadcast on many news programmes in the aftermath of the Manning verdict, but it is crucial to see the full 38 minute video available at to understand the case. It is a vivid record of a war crime. The soldiers who perpetrated it were exonerated in the US military’s reluctant investigation.

Ask yourself: what were Manning’s motivations?

In contrast, Manning, by placing more value on morality than legality, has spent over 1,100 days and nights in military prison – many of them naked, without a blanket or pillow. He has many such days and nights ahead of him.

Manning’s testimony when addressing the military court in Fort Meade, Maryland, gives us more understanding as to the motivations behind the then 22-year-old’s decision to risk his freedom – and life – by facilitating the publication of information which he was legally forbidden to share. He said:

The people in the van were not a threat but merely ‘good samaritans’. The most alarming aspect of the video to me, however, was the seemly(sic) delightful bloodlust they appeared to have… I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me about the conduct of the aerial weapons team crew members. I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure-cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare.

Manning’s explanation of his actions strike a similar vein to those of Edward Snowden, the contractor linked to the National Security Agency who exposed details of its extensive and invasive surveillance programme. Although the two men have never met, they will share a legacy as young idealists who expected more from American military and security institutions than that which they experienced.

Manning, Assange and Snowden – all profoundly impacted by their decisions

How the weaknesses in electronic security protocol were so casually breached by Snowden after a period where you might have expected the US security community to get its shop in order is difficult to comprehend. However the whistles are unlikely to stop blowing amid a growing realisation that President Obama’s “hope” and “change” manifesto for America has a more Nixonian flavour than his slick electoral campaigns ever suggested.

What further links Snowden and Manning is Wikileaks, and its front-of-house man Julian Assange. Manning continues a lengthy prison stretch, Snowden dwells in some covert Moscow transit limbo attempting to find asylum in a state willing to stare down US, while Assange looks set to spend a great number of his days within the refuge of the Ecuadorian embassy in London. The quality of all three men’s existence has been profoundly impeded by the choices they have made.

One of the charges put to Manning was that of “aiding the enemy”. Its the one that got the most media traction as it carries a maximum life sentence. The presiding military Judge Col. Denise Lind acquitted Manning of this charge.

Each wayward drone strike has done more to ‘aid the enemy’ than Manning ever could

Consensus among those following the case is that the US Government prosecution could not convincingly make the case that Manning “knowingly gave intelligence to the enemy”. It’s a hollow enough victory for Manning, of course, instead of ‘life’ he is looking at a maximum sentence of a mere 136 years. The ramifications for the press are far greater, however, as it leaves intact one hopeful plank on the crumbling bridge of information between the political elite and its subjects.

That Manning broke many laws of the US military is beyond even his lawyers’ dispute. He pled guilty to several charges, but justice was a casualty to the execution of law.  When you think about aiding the enemy, what better recruitment incentive can there be than seeing the corpses of your brother, your children, your parents, killed by those who crusade to impose their will upon your society?

Each wayward drone strike, each trigger-happy Aerial Weapons Team, each Extraordinary Rendition, each Enhanced Interrogation has done more to damage America’s global credibility and “aid the enemy” than any whistleblower ever will. That the enemy exists as ‘enemy’ due to the excesses of US foreign policy seems to be lost on its architects. It’s not America’s freedom that its enemies hate, its the relentless interference.

Neil Walsh has written for a number of newspapers and websites. He has a blog called Buttoned Coat Skies which can be viewed here.

Bradley Manning acquitted of aiding and abetting enemy, but guilty of espionage>

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