Screaming in Bradley Manning’s Trial

Published on War is a Crime.org, by davidswanson, August 15, 2013.

I sat in the courtroom all day on Wednesday as Bradley Manning’s trial wound its way to a tragic and demoralizing conclusion.  I wanted to hear Eugene Debs, and instead I was trapped there, watching Socrates reach for the hemlock and gulp it down.  Just a few minutes in and I wanted to scream or shout.  

I don’t blame Bradley Manning for apologizing for his actions and effectively begging for the court’s mercy.  He’s on trial in a system rigged against him.  The commander in chief declared him guilty long ago.  He’s been convicted.  The judge has been offered a promotion.  The prosecution has been given a playing field slanted steeply in its favor.  Why should Manning not follow the only advice anyone’s ever given him and seek to minimize his sentence?  Maybe he actually believes that what he did was wrong.  But — wow — does it make for some perverse palaver in the courtroom.

This was the sentencing phase of the trial, but there was no discussion of what good or harm might come of a greater or lesser sentence, in terms of deterrence or restitution or prevention or any other goal.  That’s one thing I wanted to scream at various points in the proceedings.

This was the trial of the most significant whistleblower in U.S. history, but there was no mention of anything he’d blown the whistle on, any of the crimes exposed or prevented, wars ended, nonviolent democratic movements catalyzed.  Nothing on why he’s a four-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee.  Nothing.  Every time that the wars went unmentioned, I wanted to scream.  War was like air in this courtroom, everybody on all sides militarized — and it went unnoticed and unmentioned.

What was discussed on Wednesday was as disturbing as what wasn’t.  Psycho-therapists, and relatives, and Bradley Manning himself — defense witnesses all — testified that he had been wrong to do what he’d done, that he’d not been in his right mind, and that he is a likable person to whom the judge should be kind.

Should likable people get lesser sentences?

The prosecution focused, with much less success I think, on depicting Manning as an unlikable person.  Should unlikable people get heavier sentences?

What, I wanted to scream, about the likability of blowing the whistle on major crimes?  Shouldn’t that be rewarded, rather than being less severely punished?

There were some 30 of us observing the trial on Wednesday in the courtroom, many with “TRUTH” on our t-shirts, plus six members of the news media.  Another 40 some people were watching a video feed in a trailer outside, and another 40 media folks were watching a video in a separate room.  The defense and prosecution lawyers sat a few feet apart from each other, and I suppose the politeness of the operation was preferable to the violence that had led to it.  But the gravity of threatening Manning with 90 years in prison seemed belied by the occasional joking with witnesses … //

… Before Manning reversed his principles on the stand, there was one other witness to testify: Manning’s older sister.  Her testimony was stunning.  I nearly cried.  A number of people did openly cry.  She described a family in which both parents were alcoholics.  Her and Bradley’s mother was drunk every day, and a mean drunk at that.  Their father was nearly as bad.  Manning’s sister, 11 years older than he, raised him more than anyone else.  Their mother drank through her pregnancy with Bradley.  He was tiny and underfed.  And things got worse as the parents split up, the mother became suicidal, the sister fled.  If this testimony were aired on television, people would discuss it — in tears — for many months.  There would be endless discussions of each tangential topic, including alcohol, fetal alcohol syndrome, child abuse, rural isolation, divorce, older sisters, and — of course — whether traitors can be excused because they had bad childhoods.

And yet, I wanted to scream out: Why aren’t we analyzing the people who had better or worse childhoods than Manning and all failed to do what he did?  What about their mental health?  What about their Blind Obedience Disorder?

Manning’s sister said that he had calmed down and matured during the past three years.  No mention of his naked isolation cell.  No mention of the existential threat hanging over him.  No mention of how clear-minded and principled he appears to have been back when he was supposedly immature.

Then, Manning made his sworn statement.  He said he was sorry his actions had hurt people, despite no evidence having shown that they did.  He said he was sorry his actions hurt the United States, whereas clearly his actions benefitted the United States, allowing us much greater access into what our secretive government is doing in our name.  Manning questioned how he could have possibly believed he knew better than his superiors.

It’s an interesting question.  Manning went into the Army in hopes of receiving money for college.  He was entering a hostile world.  Loyalty to buddies did not overpower loyalty to humanity, in Manning’s case, because the Army wasn’t his buddies.  So, Manning looked at the horrors of war and said to himself: I can shine a light, and that light can fix this.  We can, Bradley Manning believed, have a peaceful government of, by, and for the people.

The next and last witness was Bradley’s aunt, who told a very sympathetic tale paralleling Bradley’s sister’s.  She concluded by asking the judge to consider Manning’s difficult start in life, and the fact that Bradley thought he was doing the right thing when he was not thinking clearly at all.

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