One year in jail, Bradley Manning is a hero

Blowing the whistle on war crimes is no crime.

On 26 May, Private Bradley Manning will have been held in US military detention without trial for one year. He faces a battery of charges, including "aiding the enemy" – a crime punishable by execution under US law.

What was Manning's crime? As well as allegedly releasing classified diplomatic cables that exposed the hypocrisy of top US officials, it is alleged that he blew the whistle on war crimes and cover-ups by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. If this is true, the man is a hero. He is a defender of democracy and human rights. His actions are based on the principle that citizens have a right to know what the government is doing in their name.

Manning should not be in prison. The charges against him should be dropped. Instead, the US should put on trial those who killed innocent civilians and those who protected them.

Even many Americans agree that Bradley Manning is a true patriot, not a traitor. He reveres the founding ideals of the US – an open, honest government accountable to the people, which pursues its policies by lawful means that respect human rights. At great personal risk, he sought to expose grave crimes that were perpetrated and then hidden by the US government and military.

These are the characteristics of a man of conscience, motivated by altruism. Any misjudgements he made in his alleged release of certain documents are far outweighed by the positive good overall. Thanks to Manning, we, the people, know the truth.

"Cruel, inhuman and degrading"

Critics say that WikiLeaks was sometimes indiscriminate and even reckless in its release of certain documents. This may be true in a small number of cases. Regardless, these releases were done by WikiLeaks, not by Manning. He allegedly passed the information in good faith. He did not publish the documents. WikiLeaks did. Manning cannot be blamed for any shortcomings in the way WikiLeaks released the information.

For nine months, 23-year-old Manning was imprisoned in harsh, inhuman conditions at the Quantico marine corps base in Virginia.

He was subjected to long periods of solitary confinement and many extreme deprivations, which amounted to pre-conviction punishment. This mistreatment was condemned by more than 250 of America's most eminent legal scholars.

The abuse of Manning constituted illegal "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment", contrary to the UN Convention Against Torture and to the Eighth Amendment to the US constitution. It is arguable that President Obama should be indicted by the International Criminal Court. He bears direct personal and legal responsibility for the mistreatment of Manning. He knew about it, publicly endorsed it and did nothing to stop it.

After worldwide protests, Manning was recently transferred to a standard medium-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where his treatment has significantly improved.

He is being held on the, as yet, unproven allegation that he leaked classified US military and diplomatic documents that were subsequently released by WikiLeaks. These documents exposed US war crimes, as well as US foreign policy dishonesty and duplicity.

Covering up slaughter

Manning is a humanist and a man with a conscience. When he discovered human rights violations by the US armed forces and two-facedness by the US government, he was shocked and distressed. He became disillusioned with his country's foreign and military policy, believing it was betraying its professed democratic and humanitarian mission.

The abuse that first triggered Manning's disillusionment came when he was posted to Iraq in October 2009 as an intelligence analyst. He was appalled to discover US military collusion with the repression of dissent in Iraq; in particular "watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police . . . for printing 'anti-Iraqi' literature".

The offending literature exposed corruption in the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. When he complained that US forces should not be assisting in suppressing free speech and peaceful protest, he was told to keep quiet and that the US armed forces in Iraq should be doing more to silence opponents of the Maliki regime.

He was further outraged to discover top-secret video footage of a US Apache helicopter attack that gunned down 11 Iraqi civilians in 2007, including two Reuters journalists and men who had gone to the aid of the wounded. Two children were also gravely injured when the US helicopter opened fire on their van. The video records US soldiers laughing and joking at the killings, and also insulting the victims.

The video of the massacre can be seen here.

This slaughter had previously been the subject of a cover-up by the US armed forces, which claimed dishonestly that the helicopter had been engaged in combat operations against armed enemy forces.

It is only (allegedly) thanks to Bradley Manning that we now know the truth about this killing of innocent civilians – and about the killings of hundreds of other civilians in unreported and undocumented incidents.

Manning is a US citizen but also a British citizen through his Welsh mother. Since he has been in detention, he has received no British consular support. Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, have failed to help him. They have never spoken publicly against his maltreatment nor, as far as we know, made any private appeals to the US government and military to halt the abuse that Manning suffered at Quantico.

So much for the coalition's professed commitment to human rights and civil liberties.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner.

TAKE ACTION – What you can do:

1. Write to Bradley Manning. Send him your support: PFC Bradley Manning 89289. Fort Leavenworth Military Detention Centre, 830 Sabalu Road, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, KS 66027, USA.

2. Sign the petition in support of Bradley Manning.

3. Ask your MP and MEPs to urge the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to ensure a British consular visit to Bradley Manning, and to press the US government to drop all charges and release him. You can email your MP and MEPs direct through this website.

4. Phone or write to the US embassy in London – 24 Grosvenor Square, London W1A 1AE (tel: 020 7499 9000).

5. Write to President Obama, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC20500, USA.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt