As a final act of his presidency, President Obama commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning.
I don’t suppose you’d find it surprising, given my background and previous comments on this matter, that my inbox is overflowing today with messages asking what I think about Obama’s decision.
My opinion is complicated and I don’t pretend to be entirely impartial.
First, the elephant: I don’t give a tinker’s damn about Manning’s gender.
I strongly believe it is every human being’s inalienable right to define themselves. I believe this right applies to everybody, even criminals. Manning’s personal identity is none of my business in any fashion. If Chelsea Manning says she identifies as female, then so far as I’m concerned, she’s female and I’ll address her as such. This isn’t out of respect for her – because I have none – but out of respect for my own beliefs and the rights I fought for when I swore the same oath she betrayed.
A number of people have suggested to me Manning’s gender identity issues may have influenced her decision to betray her oath.
Well, see her identity issues might be seen as, if not an excuse, then an explanation.
And you know what, that’s bullshit – unless you are suggesting to me being trans makes you inherently unreliable.
There are uncounted numbers of service people who struggle with their identity in one fashion or another, with personal problems, with mental health issues, with personal pressures that sometimes stagger the imagination (as a former Chief and Officer, trust me, I dealt with personal issues from my troops most of you wouldn’t believe). The vast, vast, vast majority of those people don’t betray their oath and pass controlled material to a foreign agency.
I respect Manning’s self-declared identity, and I might even sympathize with the severe distress that identity may have caused her in a military environment, but that’s as far as it goes. Right there.
Allowing Manning to use her identity as an excuse is a slap in the face of every LGBT person who served with honor and distinction – particularly those who served before they could do so openly.
So, that said, if you wish to comment on this post I’ll expect you to show that same respect. If you address Manning by name, then use the name and gender pronouns she identifies with. Comments that attempt to make an issue, an insult, or an excuse of Manning’s gender will not post. This is non-negotiable.
Manning’s gender identity is irrelevant to her crime.
So, let’s put it aside.
And, yes, crime.
Manning is a convicted criminal.
Manning is a convicted criminal and her guilt is not in question. She admitted it herself. The evidence is indisputable.
Manning is a criminal under both civilian and military law.
She was charged with twenty-two offenses.
She pled guilty to ten of those charges.
She faced court martial and was convicted under military law of eleven out of the twelve remaining charges.
She was acquitted of the most serious charge: aiding and abetting the enemy in time of war – a charge that could have resulted in a death sentence.
She was sentenced to thirty-five years in military prison.
None of that is in dispute. Her guilt is not in question.
Should she have been charged in the first place?
Many of the messages in my inbox are from people who don’t think so. Few of those people served in the military. Fewer still served in military intelligence. And fewer still served in military intelligence in time of war.
If they had, they might have a different perspective.
Should she have been charged in the first place. You goddamned right she should have.
I wrote the following back in 2010, when the story first broke and while Manning was still being held in an Army stockade in Baghdad (Note, there was no discussion of Manning’s gender back then, thus she is referred to by the male pronoun and her birth name in the text):
[Over] the last month a number of folks have asked my opinion regarding the US Soldier who passed classified information to the WikiLeaks site.
Including this now infamous video clip.
The general consensus seems to be that I might regard this soldier as a hero – and a number of folks pointed me at this idiotic site.
Seriously, what the hell is the matter with you people?
This guy is a turd who doesn’t know the first thing about either patriotism or keeping his word.
If you think that I would regard Army Specialist Bradley Manning as anything other than an traitorous asshole who betrayed his oath, his service, and his country and who jeopardized the lives of his fellow Soldiers, then you really don’t know anything about me at all.
There’s a huge difference between a whistleblower and a disgruntled turncoat.
Manning is the latter.
He’s a coward, a criminal, a shitbag loser who was demoted for striking a fellow soldier, and from where I sit, a dishonorable traitor who deserves to be in prison for a good long time – right next Robert Hanson and John Walker and the fact that Manning gave his information to WikiLeaks instead of the Russians is irrelevant.
For those of you not familiar with the story of Spec Manning here’s the thumbnail version: Manning was a 22 year-old US Army specialist serving in Iraq who passed classified gun camera video to the WikiLeaks website. He then tried to pass 260,000 classified documents to a former hacker at WikiLeaks while bragging about his exploits. That hacker, Adrian Lamo, turned Manning into federal authorities. Manning is currently sitting in military detention in Baghdad.
Couple of things:
First, it’s a damned sad day indeed when a lowlife convicted hacker like Lamo has more honor and integrity and sense of duty than a US Army soldier trusted with a security clearance and the defense of secure information and the nation.
Second, the media widely reported Manning as an “Intelligence Analyst,” but the truth of the matter is that as a Specialist he was a low-ranking gofer, who obviously had way too much time on his hands and not nearly enough supervision. This guy was an “analyst” in only the broadest, most entry level, sense of the word.
I spent over twenty years in military intelligence with one of the highest security clearances in the military and I recognize Manning right away, he’s an E-4 headquarters discipline problem who spent most of his time in the war zone skylarking in a cushy non-combat assignment and sifting through classified networks instead of doing his fucking job. While his fellow Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen, and Guardsmen were out risking their asses every single day, Manning was sitting fat, dumb, and happy, safe in a secure compound surfing military networks and spying on his own people looking for juicy gossip, instead of performing the work that he was supposed to be doing and that would help protect the lives of his fellows. All of us in the military know shitbags like this, the slackers who sit around drinking sodas and slurping cup-O-noodles all day while everybody else not only does their own job but his too. The fucker is probably the same guy who always takes the last cup of coffee and doesn’t make more.
Third, about that video – those pilots didn’t do anything wrong. That’s right. They. Did. Not. Do. Anything. Wrong. Unless you’ve been there, you do not have context to hang this event on and you do not have the experience to understand what you’re looking at. Period. If you think otherwise, you’re wrong.
I’ve avoided discussing this despite a number of requests – because you’re not going to like what I have to say – but I’ll do it now anyhow.
The video is disturbing, it shows the true horror of war, of conflict, and killing – and that horror is not the death of innocents, it is what happens to those who do the killing and who are submerged in blood and death and destruction for months and years at a time.
You should be horrified by that video – just like you should be horrified by videos of those flag-draped steel boxes coming home to Dover Air Force Base (and that is, of course, why the previous administration tried to hide them, don’t want the population revolted and shamed by dead soldiers, no sirree). That’s war, and it’s pretty fucking horrifying. There is not one damned thing glorious about it. No matter how you slice it, what it ultimately comes down to is that you’re killing people and they are killing you. Your government is killing people. Whether or not it is justified is a matter for history and irrelevant to those who actually wage it. On the ground you’re killing people. Killing. Them. By fire and flame and blast, by gun and bombardment and by missile. Sometimes it’s quick and painless – and sometimes it’s slow and lingering and terrible. Sometimes it’s a quick shot to the head and all neat and tidy – and sometimes it leaves human beings splattered like burned chunky spaghetti sauce across the landscape. Sometimes you kill the people you intend to, those sons of bitches on the other side who are trying to kill you – and sometimes you kill children and old people and reporters and friendlies and some poor hapless bastard whose only crime was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when the minigun cuts loose. That’s war, it’s brutal and it’s ugly and it’s inhuman and it is immoral (yes, immoral, war is inherently immoral no matter which side you are on. I’m not saying that war isn’t oft times justified or that the actions of individual soldiers aren’t moral and righteous, but war itself is a dirty immoral business and make no mistake about it). That is the vicious nature of war, perhaps if Americans actually understood that they’d be less eager to have one every ten years or so. And we’ve been at this one now longer than any other in our history (with the exception of the so-called “Indian Wars”) and it is taking a measurable toll.
Americans want to believe that war is somehow glorious and moral and a grand adventure. That might makes right and that real American soldiers sleep the sleep of the righteous and the just untroubled by bad dreams. That patriotism is slapping a $2 magnet on the back of their cars while waving a flag and calling those who don’t believe as they do un-American. They live in some make believe fantasy land where it’s possible to bomb a country into democracy while making a profit and the enemy is easy to identify because he looks just like a Jap or a Nazi or a Slope or ragheaded terrorist. Americans want to believe that the enemy doesn’t love his country as much as they love theirs. Americans want to believe that war is just like TV or a video game, all clean and safe and without consequence. Americans want to believe that God stands with us and that he has forsaken the enemy. Americans want to believe that war isn’t horrifying and inhuman and immoral.
Americans want to believe that Johnny can march off to war and come home unaffected.
Reality is somewhat different – and after WWII and Korea and Vietnam and the Gulf War and Bosnia and Beirut and Somalia and now more than ten years of this goddamned endless conflict you’d think Americans would understand that fact.
But they don’t.
So, let me clue you in. If you are to survive the battlefield with your mind intact, then you’d damned well better have mental defenses that are as bullet resistant as your ballistic vest. Some folks can’t deal with it, can’t deal with the stress and horror and inhumanity of it all. They just can’t. The DoD and VA mental health clinics are full to bursting with these broken veterans – and truthfully, they may be the most human of us all. All are affected in some way. And those who engage in the business of war develop coping mechanisms or they simply won’t survive on the battlefield. And those coping mechanisms are well understand by those who train us – and those who have to fix us after we’re broken. Killing human beings in our society is immoral, and since we generally don’t recruit sociopaths into the military, we have to find a way to overcome that prohibition in the people we send off to war. The oldest and best method is to vilify the enemy, to make him less than human. Japs, Krauts, Gooks, Slopes, Towelheads, whatever, soldiers have done this since the time of the Roman Legions. It’s a natural human primary response to the situation and it works. So does gallows humor. The business we are engaged in is ghastly and horrible, we know that, but it is our sworn duty, it is the nature of our profession. And so we deal with it the way humans in similar circumstance deal with blood and gore and horror and stress – they make jokes, just as cops do, just as paramedics do, just as firemen and doctors and pilots do (I’ve known more than a few air traffic controllers in my life, all have lost aircraft under their control. When that happens, they crack wise and keep doing their jobs – because the alternative is to come unglued at the thought of an airliner you were responsible for full of people splashed all over some cornfield, and if that happens, if they freeze or become hysterical or lose focus, thousands more could die. So they crack wise and make graveyard jokes and they carry on as long as they have to. Ever wonder why the ATC profession has such a high rate of alcoholism and suicide? The only profession with a higher suicide rate is … us. The military).
Those Apache pilots were doing what they were supposed to be doing. They were directed onto target. They were literally miles away, watching those men on the ground through powerful night-vision cameras. They had seconds to analyze what they were seeing. It’s not like the movies. It’s not like a video game. It’s sweltering and the bird is shaking and vibrating and howling. It’s nerve wracking and the levels of stress and paranoia and adrenalin are so far beyond anything a normal human being ever deals with that it can’t be described – and it’s a damned sight more harrowing than anything some cowardly skylarking E-4 REMF back there in an air conditioned trailer ever had to deal with. Now, those pilots had to kill people, in a way far more personal than the average Soldier or pilot, and they had to do it over and over again, for months, years. That was the nature of their job. Could you do that? Unlikely. Just as the average person couldn’t do what a paramedic does, or a surgeon, or an executioner. It’s not the physical aspect, it’s the mental. They deal with it by joking, by gallows humor. Those pilots had no reason to believe other than what they did at the time, that they were looking at a legitimate military target, and they did what they were supposed to do. They eliminated the threat. They pulled the trigger on human beings in a very personal way – and they joked about it while they were doing so because that’s how you deal with it.
And that’s what so many people found offensive. That’s what Manning found so offensive.
They were wrong, of course, those pilots – not for joking while killing people, but for killing the wrong people. It’s easy for the armchair generals to condemn them for it, but if you think you would have made a better judgment call in that situation, well, then by all means sign up. Put your abilities, honed by hours of Gears of War, to use. The Army is always looking for good people with the magic ability to see through the fog of war and separate friend from foe. Go on, put your money were your mouth is.
I know, no matter what I say, you’ll still think me wrong.
You think the real question is this: with all our vaunted technology why couldn’t we tell that those men on the ground were TV reporters and children and non-combatants? Why?
Well because as I’ve alluded to in the previous paragraph, war is not at all like a video game or a movie or a book written by somebody who has never been there. And because computers aren’t very good at determining the intentions of human beings in a grainy green-lit shaking night-vision video feeds taken from miles away.
That’s the job of Intelligence.
That’s the job of Intelligence analysts.
See, while those Apache pilots, and countless thousands of other forces, were out there on the line – intelligence analysts were sitting in an air conditioned trailer in a secure compound in Bagdad. Their job was to analyze video and images and data and patterns and messages and the countless other bits and pieces and fragments of information in order to give the trigger pullers a better picture of the battle space. It was their job to determine intent.
In this case, the events in the video happened two years before Manning showed up in the war zone, but somebody just like him was supposed to be looking at the data and providing information to the warfighters.
Now, it’s true that you never have enough information, and you never have a clear picture, and you can never truly know the enemy’s intention. And that too is the nature of war. You simply do the best you can in a dynamic and ever changing environment. And even if you do everything right as an analyst, everything you know may be rendered outdated in seconds by changes in the battlespace. Intelligence work never ends. In the war zone there is never an idle moment. You learn from your mistakes and failures – and you will make mistakes and you will have failures and that too is the nature of war. But what you don’t do is sit around, fucking off and surfing through the networks looking for ways to screw your superiors when what you’re supposed to be doing is supporting the guys out there on the line. What Manning should have been doing was his job, analyzing data, doing his part to help build a coherent picture of the threat in order to reduce the likelihood of killing the wrong people.
He should have been doing his part to support his brothers in arms.
Instead he betrayed his oath, his duty, and his country, those soldiers out on the line, and those self same innocent Iraqis he claimed to be so concerned about. Manning’s actions directly put his fellow soldiers in harm’s way and may have put Iraqi lives at risk as well. If Manning was so concerned for the lives of those innocent Iraqis, then he damned well should have done his job.
(Note: I speak from personal experience here. Somewhere in the back of a closet, in a box of paper records I keep from my military service, is a Navy Commendation Medal that I was awarded for, in part, saving the lives of 43 Iraqis. That situation isn’t one I’m going to discuss in detail, but the short version is a target had been incorrectly identified in the fog of war. I was the intelligence officer who had personally led a team to inspect that target the day before and knew from direct observation the strike package had been ordered in error. I could have kept my mouth shut. That would have been the easy thing to do. Admirals don’t like changing strike packages – especially ones that are queued for launch on the carrier’s flight deck – or being told they are wrong. I could have looked the other way. I could have ignored it. They were just towelheads, right? Enemy non-combatants, but enemies nonetheless. It was two days into the war and we were killing them by the tens of thousands. I mean, what was another 40 or so, right? But they don’t pay Chief Warrant Officers to keep their mouth shut or to do the easy thing. So, instead, I did my duty and pissed off my chain of command in the process. And 43 innocent Iraqis lived. Later, instead of a court martial, I got a commendation. So don’t tell me about Manning’s concern for Iraqi civilians because I don’t want to hear it).
Now, if Manning truly felt that he had evidence of a war crime – then there are very specific methods to bring that to the attention of the chain of command, all the way up to the Commander In Chief. He could have forwarded that information to his superiors. If he was unsatisfied with their response he could have reported it to the Inspector General’s Office – and he could have done so anonymously if he was afraid of repercussions. Every single one of us in uniform knows how to contact the IG – and if you could find Adrian Lamo’s email address, you damned well could find the number for the IG which is posted on the bulletin board in every space in the military. Failing that, he could have contacted his Representative or Senator – and again, if you can find a hacker’s email address or a two year old classified video buried in SIPRNET, you sure as hell shouldn’t have any trouble finding your congressman’s webpage.
No, Manning, with malice aforethought, deliberately betrayed his country. He stole classified information that he was neither authorized to access or equipped to understand and passed it to unauthorized persons. Nothing whatsoever justifies his actions. Period. But, then he bragged about it to Adrian Lamo and offered to pass on 260,000 additional classified documents. Two hundred and sixty thousand. He didn’t do this out of some outraged sense of morality, he was doing it for the same reason every other traitor does it – because he thought he was smarter than his chain of command, because he thought himself above his brothers in arms, because he appointed himself moral guardian of America, and because he wanted to improve his situation at the expense of duty and honor. What Manning did was a violation of not only his oath of enlistment, but the oath he swore to protect classified information when he was granted a security clearance. This man’s word is shit. He is a disgrace to the uniform he wears and an insult to all of us who have ever served with honor and distinction and who hold our oath dear.
Specialist Bradley Manning is a cowardly dishonorable scumbag and his actions may have led directly to the deaths of Allied men and women and have directly affected national security both in the war zone and at home.
More than that, because he was busy betraying his country instead of doing the job he was trained and paid and sworn to do, other pilots may find themselves living with the fact that they killed innocent men and women and children because they didn’t have the information they needed to make different choices in the battlespace.
This man is no hero.
And to call him one is to spit in the face of every man and women who has ever served and sacrificed for this country.
This man deserves nothing less than life in prison.
Looking back seven years on that essay and I wouldn’t change a word – well, other than the gender pronouns.
If I wrote that today, I might be a bit more judicious in my use of the word “traitor,” but I’m pretty confident that I’d end up in the same place.
Manning is a criminal. By her own admission. By military law. She betrayed her duty, her service, and her oath. She did it deliberately and with malice aforethought.
Nothing she disclosed was evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the military or the government – yes, I know you’re reaching for your keyboard right now in fury. But before you type the words “war crime” go back and review all of the material Manning stole and gave to Wikileaks. Show me the war crime. Show me what was worth seven years in prison. Show me what was so terrible that it couldn’t be brought to the attention of US authorities without betraying your oath.
Show me what was so terrible that not only it couldn’t be brought to the attention of the proper authorities but instead should be given to an international criminal who deals in stolen property for his own profit and to further his own political agenda.
Go on. Read all of the material – don’t forget there are 260,000 diplomatic messages to go through and 500,000 pages of other material. Show me the crime. I’ll wait.
So, where does that leave us?
I waited to answer my email until after President Obama’s final press conference.
I figured he’d talk about his reasoning, and he did.
And there were no surprises.
First, the president commuted Manning’s sentence. Manning wasn’t pardoned.
That’s an important distinction.
I can perhaps live with a commutation.
But I would be adamantly opposed to a pardon.
Manning doesn’t deserve a pardon in any fashion. She betrayed her country. She betrayed her oath. That is not in question. And Obama didn’t say otherwise and made no excuses for her. Nor did he in any way criticize the military or the military legal process that convicted Manning of her crimes.
But, as much as it galls me – and it does gall me – President Obama was right. Manning’s sentence was out of proportion with other similar cases.
Thirty-five years in Maximum Security was far beyond what others who acted similar to Manning got. Manning wasn’t a spy like John Walker or Robert Hanssen. She was an idiot. She betrayed her country because she was stupid and selfish. She wanted us to think she did it for some higher cause but the truth is she just thought she knew better than all the rest of us. She was a lousy soldier and she shouldn’t have been there in the first place and maybe some of that is on the Army, or maybe not. But in the end perhaps 35 years was too long.
Thirty-five years is too long when a General who gave classified material to his mistress got nothing but a slap on the wrist and is hailed as a hero. And yes, thirty-five years is too long when the Secretary of State can run a private email server in her house with classified information on it. Granted, neither Petraeus nor Clinton’s actions were anywhere near what Manning did, but it’s damned hard to hold the troops to account when their commanders set such examples.
I want you to understand something here: I have no sympathy for Chelsea Elizabeth Manning and I’ll be honest, if she was right now looking at another 28 years in Leavenworth, I would shed not a single tear.
But I’m not particular put out by clemency either.
I wouldn’t have done it, but I’m not the president either, perhaps if I was looking at it from his viewpoint I would see it differently.
Emotionally, Manning could have rotted in prison for all I care.
Dispassionately, I understand clemency and respect the president’s decision.
Perhaps my perspective is not yours.
Perhaps my experience is not yours.
Tens of thousands of us went into that lousy war, me included.
We, all of us including Manning, went of our own volition.
Four thousand, five hundred and fourteen of us died in Iraq.
Two thousand, three hundred and ninety-two of us died in Afghanistan.
Those men and women, they don’t get a choice about living with the consequences of their decisions.
Those of us who lived, who held fast to our oath, we have to live with our choices. Every single day.
Manning should have to live with hers.
She betrayed her country. She betrayed her oath. She betrayed us. She did it on purpose.
Whether it be in prison or out, Manning should have to wear that betrayal around her neck for the rest of her goddamned life. Commutation of her sentence won’t change that.
In the end, we all have to live with what we’ve done.
President Obama included.
Perhaps that’s why he made the decision he did.
I guess, I’ll just have to live with that.