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Manning Should Never Have Been in the US Military's Crosshairs

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Chelsea Manning should have her crushing 35-year sentence commuted by President Obama to the three-and-a-quarter years she's already spent behind bars awaiting trial and sentence (there's a White House petition to that effect here). What purpose is there in further punishing a woman who has, when all's said and done, helped publicise deeply troubling incidents like US dual-Apache* helicopter attack in Baghdad in 2007.

Readers will recall that this involved US Apaches opening fire on a group of men - some armed but some not, and including the two Reuters journalists Saeed Chmagh and Namir Noor-Eldeen - before then separately, and apparently with no justification, shooting at a mini-van that came to rescue one of the wounded men. The cockpit chatter is often obnoxious: "Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards." "Nice." "Nice." "Good shoot'n'." "Thank you." "Come on, let us shoot." "Oh yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield." "Ha ha." "I think they just drove over a body." "Really!" "Yeah!"

As the Guardian notes, Manning's three-and-a-half-decades jail-term is unprecedentedly long for someone convicted of leaking US government documents. Compare, for example, the ten years received by Charles Graner, the most severely punished of those held responsible for the Abu Ghraib torture in Iraq. And compared to Graner, who served six and half of his ten years, many of those at Abu Ghraib got very light sentences, with the commanding officer at the jail receiving no more than a demotion.

You might almost think that the US military authorities have got their priorities wrong somewhere here ...

Abu Ghraib is also worth recalling because it was through revelations on the CBS 60 Minutes programme and in a New Yorker magazine article that the torture scandal came to public prominence. And it's worth noting too, that the author of the New Yorker article was Seymour Hersh, the veteran investigative journalist who exposed the US army's murder of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in 1969 - the infamous My Lai massacre.

Journalists may sometimes "embed" with their country's armed forces, but they can also expose wrongdoing as well. Unsurprisingly, militaries the world over commit war crimes and, more often than not, they escape any punishment. Most of their misdeeds are simply lost in the heat of battle, are deliberately overlooked, covered up, or... just not dealt with even when they do occasionally come to light. But without public awareness it's doubtful there will ever be any redress and whistle-blowing journalism is often the vital ingredient to bring about action.

Manning's leak of military data was driven, she says, by "love for our country and a sense of duty for others", and there was an undeniable interest in the public knowing more about the conduct of the US military in Iraq and in places like Afghanistan. With the Apache helicopter killings, for instance, Reuters had sought release of the cockpit video via Freedom of Information legislation, a route that proved totally unsuccessful. Sometimes leaks are the only way...

It's true that right now the issue of what can be released into the public domain - or at least to journalists before being made more widely available - has never seemed more vexed. WikiLeaks, Manning, Snowden, Greenwald/Miranda, the Guardian's smashed hard-drives - the situations are all somewhat different and each throwing up some complex legal issues (see Adam Wagner's account of the Miranda affair for example), but the basic truth is that the military-intelligence-political complex (if I can use this term) is never going to accept unauthorised disclosures. They'll always be anathema. That doesn't mean it's always right to send reporters troves of classified data, but it's important to recognise that this is an important pressure valve in any tightly-wound democracy. In the case of Manning, as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank says, her trial and pre-trial treatment have "exposed how zealous the national security state has been."

Meanwhile, to return to the chilling Apache helicopter attack - leaving aside the Beavis and Butthead-style guffawing of the pilots, the most disturbing part of this sordid episode is the attack on the mini-van, where no weapons are visible and the pilots just appear to be hungry for more "kills". Two young children in the mini-van were badly injured by the 30mm gunship fire and were later carried away by nearby US ground forces (Bravo Company 2-16). One of these soldiers, Ethan McCord, has spoken of carrying first the injured five-year-old girl Doaha Mutashar in his arms and then her ten-year-old brother Sajad. In the process he says he "got yelled at by my platoon leader that I needed to stop trying to save these mf'n kids". After getting them to safety a blood-soaked McCord was badly affected by what he'd seen and confided in his sergeant. He was told to "get the sand out of [his] vagina" and to "suck it up and be a soldier". That's how his heroism was repaid, while Manning's own form of bravery has led to 35 years in a military jail.

You might almost think that the US military authorities have got their priorities wrong somewhere here ...

*It's just a footnote, but I can't help thinking there's something wrong about a national armed force that uses attack helicopters named after an indigenous Native American people (the Apachean) and pilots with call-signs - "Crazyhorse 1/8" and "Crazyhorse 1/9" - borrowed from a Native American leader (of the Lakota people). Given the 19th-century US government's shameful history of murder, land theft and forced removal of the Native Americans, maybe the modern US military could show a little more respect for other people and other cultures.