The courage of Bradley Manning will inspire others to seize their moment of truth

In 2010, Private Manning did his duty to humanity and supplied proof from within the murder machine. This is his triumph, and his show trial merely expresses corrupt power’s abiding fear of people learning the truth.

The critical moment in the political trial of the century came on 28 February when Bradley Manning stood and explained why he had risked his life to leak tens of thousands of official files. It was a statement of morality, conscience and truth: the very qualities that distinguish human beings. This was not deemed mainstream news in America; and were it not for Alexa O’Brien, an independent freelance journalist, Manning’s voice would have been silenced. Working through the night, she transcribed and released his every word. The speech is a rare, revealing document.

Describing the attack by an Apache helicopter crew who filmed civilians as they murdered and wounded them in Baghdad in 2007, Manning said: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me was the seemingly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have. They . . . seemed not to value human life by referring to them as ‘dead bastards’ and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety [who] is seriously wounded . . . For me, this seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.” He hoped “the public would be as alarmed as me” about a crime which, as his subsequent leaks revealed, was not an aberration.

Bradley Manning is a principled whistleblower and truth-teller who has been vilified and tortured – and Amnesty International needs to explain to the world why it has not adopted him as a prisoner of conscience; or is Amnesty, unlike Manning, intimidated by criminal power?

“It is a funeral here at Fort Meade,” Alexa O’Brien told me. “The US government wants to bury Manning alive. He is a genuinely earnest young man with not an ounce of mendacity. The mainstream media finally came on the day of the verdict. They showed up for a gladiator match – to watch the gauntlet go down, thumbs pointed down.”

The criminal nature of the US military is beyond dispute. The decades of lawless bombing, the use of poisonous weapons on civilian populations, the renditions and the torture at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and elsewhere are all documented. When I was a young war reporter in Indochina, it dawned on me that America exported its homicidal neuroses and called it war, even a noble cause. Like the Apache attack, the 1968 massacre at My Lai was not untypical. In the same province, Quang Ngai, I gathered evidence of widespread slaughter: thousands of men, women and children, murdered arbitrarily and anonymously in “free fire zones”.

In Iraq, I filmed a shepherd whose brother and his entire family had been cut down by an American plane, in the open. This was sport. In Afghanistan, I filmed a woman whose dirt-walled home, and family, had been obliterated by a 500lb bomb. There was no “enemy”. My film cans burst with such evidence.

In 2010, Private Manning did his duty to humanity and supplied proof from within the murder machine. This is his triumph, and his show trial merely expresses corrupt power’s abiding fear of people learning the truth. It also illuminates the parasitic industry around truth-tellers. Manning’s character has been dissected and abused by those who never knew him yet claim to support him.

The hyped film We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks mutates a heroic young soldier into an “alienated . . . lonely . . . very needy” psychiatric case with an “identity crisis” because “he was in the wrong body and wanted to become a woman”. So spoke Alex Gibney, the director, whose prurient psychobabble has found willing ears across a media too compliant or lazy or stupid to challenge the hype and comprehend that the shadows falling across whistleblowers may eventually reach even them. Right from its dishonest title, Gibney’s film performed a dutiful hatchet job on Manning, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The message was familiar – serious dissenters are freaks. Alexa O’Brien’s meticulous record of Manning’s moral and political courage demolishes this smear.

In the Gibney film, US politicians and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff are lined up to repeat, unchallenged, that, by publishing Manning’s leaks, WikiLeaks and Assange placed the lives of informants at risk and he therefore had “blood on his hands”. On 1 August, the Guardian reported: “No record of deaths caused by WikiLeaks revelations, court told”. The Pentagon general who led a ten-month investigation into the worldwide impact of the leaks said that not one death could be attributed to the disclosures.

Yet, in the film, the journalist Nick Davies describes a heartless Assange who had no “harm minimisation plan”. I asked the filmmaker Mark Davis about this. A respected broadcaster for SBS Australia, Davis was an eyewitness, accompanying Assange during much of the preparation of the leaked files for publication in the Guardian and the New York Times in 2010. His footage appears in the Gibney film. He told me, “Assange was the only one who worked day and night extracting 10,000 names of people who could be targeted by the revelations in the logs.”

While Manning faces life in prison, Gibney is reportedly planning a Hollywood movie. A “biopic” of Assange is on the way, along with a Hollywood version of David Leigh’s and Luke Harding’s book of scuttlebutt on the “fall” of WikiLeaks. Profiting from the boldness, cleverness and suffering of those who refuse to be co-opted and tamed, they all will end up in history’s waste bin. For the inspiration of future truth-tellers belongs to Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and the remarkable young people of WikiLeaks, whose achievements are unparalleled. Snowden’s rescue is largely a WikiLeaks triumph – a thriller too good for Hollywood, because its heroes are real.

Bradley Manning’s statement is at: alexaobrien.com

Bradley Manning. Photo: Getty

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war