IT’S rarely considered that teaching children to always tell the truth can prove dangerous later in life. If Chelsea Manning, the 25-year-old US solider formerly known as Bradley, is guilty of anything, then it’s telling the truth, something her grandmother may have had a key role in influencing.
“If you can’t tell the truth, then don’t bother talking,” is what she used to say to Bradley, according to Susan Manning, the imprisoned soldier’s softly spoken Welsh mother whom I met in Dublin during a visit organised by the Afri peace and justice group.
In early 2010, while serving in Iraq, Private Manning leaked classified material that exposed US war crimes in Iraq. This material included a video of an Apache helicopter firing on civilians in Baghdad in 2007. It shows American soldiers shooting and killing 11 individuals who do not return fire. Two of those killed were Reuters employees.
Private Manning, who has ancestors from Rathmines in Dublin and Schull in Co Cork, was shook by the material.
“The most alarming aspect of the video to me was the seemly delightful bloodlust the Aerial Weapons Team seemed to have,” says Manning.
“They dehumanised the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life, and referred to them as quote-unquote ‘dead bastards’ and congratulated each other on their ability to kill in large numbers. At one point in the video there is an individual on the ground attempting to crawl to safety.
“The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the aerial weapons team crew members verbally asks for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so that he can have a reason to engage. For me, this seemed similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.”
At the time of the leaks, Bradley Manning was in the middle of a war, struggling with gender identity issues and unsure of what to do with the material he had uncovered in his role as an intelligence analyst.
Perhaps Manning’s grandmother’s words about telling the truth were ringing in his ear. Rightly or wrongly, that’s what he sought to do — to tell people what was happening and to risk the grave consequences that followed.
Manning leaked the material to the WikiLeaks website, and the rest is history.
The kid who had been bullied all through his teens, who had endured a painful parental separation and had joined the military as a way of getting an education, was now in serious trouble.
In August, following three years of confinement, Manning was convicted of violations of the Espionage Act and other offences and sentenced to 35 years in prison, and is expected to be behind bars for at least eight.
At the same time, Manning announced he wanted to undergo a sex change and to be known as Chelsea. In a statement read out after the sentencing, Manning, who had travelled to Iraq via Shannon airport, said: “I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people.
“When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.
“If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.”
Hero or traitor? That has been the debate of recent years over people like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Manning. Increasingly the rhetoric is being turned up to suggest that these people should be treated as terrorists rather than truth seekers. This view is not shared by Amnesty International or people like Desmond Tutu, who has called for Manning’s release.
Whistleblowers like Manning have a vital role to play in shining a light on what is being done in our name and with our money. The lies about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the lies behind the abuses of power in banking and elsewhere are the real enemy.
Shadowy and secretive decision making is the real threat to democracy and leads to corruption and people to lose faith in politics and in our institutions.
If our governments won’t tell us what they are doing, then who will?
As I sat with Manning’s mother, I found myself asking how far I would go to stand over my belief in truth, justice and democracy.
I wondered what I would do if I was in the same position? For me this is at the heart of it all.
It is argued that Manning acted irresponsibly and endangered lives but it is also worth considering if our duty to humanity overrides any duty to any government, institution or cause.
I have no doubt what Grandmother Manning would have to say about that.