Punishing the messenger while murderers go free

[This was first published here for the Bradley Manning Support Network.]

Last month, a video showing four uniformed U.S. Marines urinating on the bloodied corpses of dead Afghans went viral, returning – if briefly – to our national discussion the depravity of war and the inhumanity of those sent off to fight it.

The video also reignited debates about whether soldiers of these repugnant spectacles are merely “a few bad apples” running rogue or instead a disturbing manifestation of a more insidious, fundamental, and pervasive immorality at the heart of war. In doing so it recalled more obscene instances in the past, such as the Abu Ghraib torture scandal or some of Guantánamo’s darker secrets.

It also might have reminded you of the so-called “Kill Team,” the U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan whose commander directed his soldiers to murder unarmed Afghani civilians, killed another himself, then removed and collected body parts as souvenirs.

Cpl. Jeremy Morlock with Staff Sgt. David Bram

The ‘Kill Team’ story got major media attention, spurred war-mentality discussions, and put the soldiers involved and their Staff Sergeant in charge on trial. But what came of their indictment?

Several soldiers were prosecuted in the incident, with varying severity. These include Pfc. Andrew Colmes, who pled guilty to the murder of innocent Afghan civilians and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Staff Sergeant David Bram was convicted of solicitation to commit murder, conspiracy to commit assault, and attempting to obstruct the investigation into the Kill Team’s rampage. He was sentenced to five years in prison, but he’ll be eligible for parole after the first three.

Then there’s Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, dubbed the ringleader of the Kill Team. Gibbs was convicted of murdering a civilian, Marach Agha, and planting a weapon next to him to make it seem like he’d killed a militant. He was also convicted of murder for inciting one soldier to throw a grenade at a 15-year-old Afghan civilian, Gul Mudin, and another to shoot the boy afterward. Gibbs was said to play with Mudin’s corpse “as if it was a puppet,” collect teeth and finger bones, and keep part of the victim’s skull. Gibbs’ punishment was most severe, sentenced to life in prison, yet he will be eligible for parole in less than ten years. According to the Guardian, Gibbs’ “jurors acceded to the convicted soldier’s plea to have the hope of being reunited with his son.”

Compare this treatment with the prospective and intended treatment of Pfc. Bradley Manning. Whereas Gibbs, who murdered, conspired to murder, and treated war like deer-hunting bloodsport, was quietly tried and awarded the chance of extremely early parole, Manning could face life in prison without parole or even the death penalty, if his jurors so choose. What about Manning’s hope to reunite with his family after prison, or come to terms with his gender-identity crisis? Manning didn’t kill a soul – will his jurors accede to his plea for freedom?

Gibbs was not kept in solitary confinement for ten months against his will. He wasn’t forced to strip naked in prison at night as Manning was in Quantico. Gibbs’ Article 32 hearing was not delayed 18 months and then held so as to minimize media access. His Commander-in-Chief did not declare Gibbs guilty before he even stepped inside a courtroom, as President Obama declared of Manning eight full months before his hearing. Well-known former governors did not demand that Gibbs be executed.

Or consider another ongoing military investigation. Marine Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich is being tried for his alleged involvement in the 2005 Haditha killings, in which Marines murdered 24 Iraqi civilians. In what witnesses describe as a massacre, Wuterich ordered his squad to “shoot first, ask questions later.” His Marines then shot two dozen unarmed Iraqis, including women and children. If convicted of all charges, Wuterich would face life in prison. Yet at his Article 32 pre-trial hearing, the Investigating Officer, a fellow Marine officer, recommended the major charges be dropped in favor of a lesser one, negligent homicide, that’d only carry a maximum 3-year sentence. But that wasn’t enough: Sgt. Wuterich was just awarded a plea deal in which he pled guilty to “dereliction of duty,” which carries minimal punishment, and then the military judge in his case recommended that he spend no time in jail at all.

Furthermore, it was recently revealed that Sergeant Sanick Dela Cruz testified that Wuterich, his commander, killed five Iraqis and then ordered Dela Cruz to lie about it. Dela Cruz only testified against Wuterich in exchange for immunity – the government dismissed murder charges against him when he agreed to testify in Wuterich’s trial. So Dela Cruz, who also admitted to urinating on one of Wuterich’s corpses, will get off with no jail time, for bringing to light these war crimes and military abuses. The irony is not lost on anyone familiar with Manning’s case: Manning was never accused of murder, desecrating dead bodies, or covering up crimes, but he’s looking at a caged life with no hope for parole or freedom, while actual murderers and those who lied for them get lessened charges or full immunity.

So why is Manning treated this way? In 2010, Admiral Mike Mullen said that WikiLeaks’ source for the Afghan War Logs “might already have on [his] hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” a year and half before Manning’s pre-trial hearing. Google searches for Mullen’s comments on Staff Sgt. Gibbs’ murder, photos playing with dead bodies, and body-part trophies yield no results.

Video of the Apache helicopter incident in New Baghdad

As Charles Davis writes for Al Jazeera, “While killing unarmed civilians for sport may not be officially sanctioned policy, it doesn’t threaten the functioning of the war machine as much as a soldier standing up and refusing to be complicit in mass murder.” In other words, Wuterich’s and Gibb’s murders don’t interfere with America’s wars in the Middle East in any meaningful way. They’re embarrassing when made public and incur scorn from the international community, but they don’t have any real effect on U.S. foreign policy. By contrast, Bradley Manning’s alleged actions, in highlighting grave abuses, airing diplomatic secrets, and calling attention to otherwise unnoticed crimes, are considered an impediment to American policy. According to CNN, negotiations between the Iraqi government and the Obama Administration broke down over a dispute about immunity for U.S. soldiers there, specifically due to a cable released by WikiLeaks. Due to this breakdown, the U.S. had to fulfill its promise to withdraw troops from Iraq, leading many to credit Bradley Manning with helping end the nearly 8-year occupation.

Comparing Wuterich or Gibbs with Pfc. Manning sheds much-needed light on some ugly truths of the U.S. justice system. Referencing the Kill Team specifically, Davis suggests that if Manning “had murdered civilians and desecrated their corpses – if he had the moral capacity to commit war crimes, not the audacity to expose them – he’d be better off today.”

But the government would argue that Pfc. Manning’s case is of special interest, and therefore deserves magnified punishment, because he indirectly “aided the enemy.” This is the charge that carries the potential death penalty, that Manning’s lawyer requested be dropped in the Article 32 hearing, and that leads prominent pundits to declare Manning a “traitor.” This will be the charge that sets a precedent in the war on whistle-blowing.

It will also surely be distorted by Manning’s prosecutors, because if the military disciplined soldiers based on honest assessments of what truly “aids the enemy” – and what does not – it would require harsher punishment for soldiers following orders and leniency for an intelligence private releasing improperly classified documents he believes the public should see.

It would also require investigating prominent U.S. politicians. In late 2010, American officials including former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, former secretary of homeland security Tom Ridge, former White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend and former attorney general Michael Mukasey attended a forum held by supporters of the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK), a group the United States has designated a terrorist organization since 1997. As Glenn Greenwald writes,

Even though the actions of these Bush officials violate every alleged piety about bashing one’s own country on foreign soil and may very well constitute a felony under U.S. law, they will be shielded from criticisms because they want to use the Terrorist group to overthrow a government that refuses to bow to American dictates.

If the U.S. was genuine in disciplining those who “aid the enemy,” they’d be investigating and indicting U.S. officials openly supporting a group the U.S. deems a terrorist organization.

They’d also be paying closer attention to what those they’ve captured have to say. On the rare occasions when suspected militants are caught and tried, they say what radicalized them toward terror is the American killing of Middle Eastern civilians. As Chase Madar writes,

terrorists themselves have freely confessed that what motivated their acts of wanton violence has been the damage done by foreign military occupation back home or simply in the Muslim world. Asked by a federal judge why he tried to blow up Times Square with a car bomb in May 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad answered that he was motivated by the civilian carnage the U.S. had caused in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Examine again what Sgt. Gibbs and his soldiers did in Afghanistan: killing innocent Afghani civilians (including a 15-year-old boy), removing their fingers, playing with their corpses. This is what provides rhetorical ammunition for Al Qaeda and its offshoots, who can point to events like this as catalysts for their rage. This is indirectly “aiding the enemy” as a blatant and obscene symbol of American invasion.

This is also the type of behavior that Pfc. Manning is accused of revealing. One State Department cable that WikiLeaks published documents a harrowing atrocity in Iraq, “wherein one man, four women, two children, and three infants were summarily executed.” The killings were illegal, a US airstrike attempted to destroy the evidence, and yet no soldiers have been held accountable. Releasing this cable did not “aid the enemy”; it’s the killing itself that spawns outrage and radical militancy.

Sgt. Gibbs, Sgt Wuterich, and the soldiers who followed their orders have confessed to the blood on their hands, and they will be granted plea deals and near-immunity. Defense Secretary Robert Gates declared that claims of damage done as a result of WikiLeaks’ releases were “significantly overwrought,” and yet Pfc. Manning could be sent to prison for life.

But Manning’s case is not truly about disciplining a soldier for “aiding the enemy” at all. If it were, Sergeants Gibbs and Wuterich would be those on high-profile trial, worrying they may never be free again. Instead, Manning’s trial is about punishing the messenger to dissuade those who find his courage inspiring. It sends a clear message that no matter the abuse, shedding desperately needed light on unpunished crimes will not be tolerated.

Bradley Manning being escorted to the courthouse for the Pretrial Hearing
Punishing the messenger while murderers go free

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