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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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