The conscience and courage of Chelsea Manning

  • April 4, 2014

Surveillance & Security

Four years after WikiLeaks’ release of the Collateral Murder video, Manning’s contagious courage continues to reveal the dehumanized colonizer within.

Four years have passed since WikiLeaks’ sensational release of the classified US military video titled Collateral MurderOn April 5, 2010, the raw footage was published depicting airstrikes by a US Army helicopter gunship in the Iraqi suburb of New Baghdad. The soldiers attacked Iraqis, killing about a dozen men wandering down a street, including two Reuters staffers, Namir Noor-Eldeen and Saeed Chmagh in the first of three reckless attacks involving civilians.

The video opened with a quote from George Orwell: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It gained global attention, with viewers reaching millions, shattering the euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ and revealing the true state of modern warfare behind the warping shield of propaganda.

Much focus in the media at the time was given to analyzing whether some of the Iraqi people in the video were carrying rocket propelled grenades or AK-47s and arguments ensued about the rules of engagement. The unfolding of these scenes calls for recognition, for us to take a look at these wars from a wider perspective than the narrow view offered by the establishment media lens.

Before anyone talks about the laws of armed conflict and whether the rules of engagement were broken or not, we need to ask why these armed crews were even there in the first place. We should be examining the legality of the Iraq War itself. Speaking in defense of the disclosure of classified US military documents on the Iraq War, Assange pointed out how “most wars that are started by democracies involve lying,” and noted how “the start of the Iraq war involved very serious lies that were repeated and amplified by some parts of the press.”

Iraq has never been shown to have threatened the United States and it is common knowledge that the premise of this war was based on blatant lies. Colin Powell’s fabrications at the UN Security Council about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were a particular low point for the US in its base war propaganda. The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg designated the term ‘war of aggression’ as an attack on another nation or people without any justification of self-defense and listed it as a major international war crime.

In a report given at a New York Commission Hearing in May 11, 1991, attorney and President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights Michael Ratner seriously questioned the conduct of United States against Iraq:

As people living in the United States we have an obligation not to close our eyes, cover our ears and remain silent. We must not and cannot be ‘good Germans.’ We must be, as Bertrand Russell said about the crimes committed by the U.S. in Vietnam, ‘Against the Crime of Silence.’ We must bear witness to the tens of thousands of deaths for whom our government and its leaders bear responsibility and ask the question, ‘Has the United States committed war crimes with regard to its initiation and conduct of the war against Iraq?’

The questions raised by the graphic video-game turkey-shoot nature of this video needs to be placed within its larger context, along with examining the justification or potential war crimes of each incident in the video.

The moving imagery in the video revealed a particular mindset displayed by these US military-trained soldiers. It is the consciousness behind the gun-sight. The mind is generally blind to biases behind a perception that is trained to look at the world through the crosshairs of a gun-sight. From a broader historical perspective, one could say it is a colonial mind that controls an inception point, setting its own rules of engagement and defining the course of events and destiny of those caught in it.

“Lets shoot. Light ‘em all up. Come on, fire!” In a series of air-to-ground attacks, a helicopter crew excitedly found a target. One man can be heard saying, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards,” and another responds saying “Nice.” When they find a wounded individual trying to crawl away, another man simply says: “All you gotta do is pick up a weapon,” expressing his wish to shoot him.

After finding that there were kids in the minivan that they had engaged, simply on their way to school, one man can clearly be heard blaming the victims: “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” These civilians are no longer seen as victims and the permission to engage is manufactured by the aggressors attacking “targets” who are just trying to get away.

In the original 38-minute video recording the scenes in New Baghdad on July 12, 2007, the past century has lingered to haunt our global society. The dark shadow of colonization is carried over into the military-industrial age of the 20th century with its outward-thrusting brutality. The cynical naming of the ‘Apache’ helicopter evokes a memory of the genocide of American natives long ago. Native American activist Winona LaDuke once spoke of how it is common military-speak when you leave a base in a foreign country to say that you are heading ‘out into Indian Country.’ The brutal projection of US power into the oil-rich Middle East contains echos of these historical ‘Indian Wars’. The unfolding scenes appear as if the US is almost glorifying and continuing these crimes against humanity from the past.

This colonial mentality and injustice, never atoned for, is now expanding into a global web of military forces that more and more serve hidden corporate goals and agendas. In Discourse on Colonialism, the French poet and author Aimé Césaire wrote how colonization brutalizes and de-civilizes even the colonizer himself:

[C]olonization … dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal, accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal.

The real scenes of modern war on the ground stand like a mirror. Reflected in the graphic WikiLeaks video, we begin to see something about each one of us that has long escaped consciousness. In the raw image of this cruel scene, we can see a part of our culture’s collective shadow, as the barbarian degraded in the effort of ‘civilizing’ those ‘others’. Descending into torture, drone attacks on wedding parties and other acts of collateral murder, this barbarism is clothed in the rhetoric of civility and self-defense, yet reveals the unredeemed colonizer within.

What is it that is shattering the armament around the hearts of so many? The conscience of Chelsea Manning, the source behind the leak of Collateral Murder, was the spark for a worldwide awakening. Her act of conscience shattered the abstraction and opened the gate that guarded this inception point, allowing the public to bear witness to uncensored images of modern warfare and decide for themselves how to see it. In the unfolding images, we were able to see what Chelsea Manning saw.

At the pretrial hearing in her prosecution for leaking the largest trove of secret documents in US history, Manning read out a personal statement to the court in Fort Meade, Maryland, describing how she came to download hundreds of thousands of classified documents and videos from military databases and submit them to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. She spoke about facts regarding the 12 July 2007 aerial weapons team — the video depicting the incident in New Baghdad.

Manning began her statement by saying how at first, having already seen countless similar combat scenes, she didn’t think the video was very special. Yet she came to be troubled by “the recording of audio comments by the aerial weapons team crew and the second engagement in the video of an unarmed bongo truck.” Then she spoke of the attitudes of the soldiers in the helicopter: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me … was the seemly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have.” She continued:

They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not 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. 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 seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass.

Manning furthermore spoke about the specific moment where the father driving his kids to school in a van stopped and attempted to assist the wounded:

While saddened by the aerial weapons team crew’s lack of concern about human life, I was disturbed by the response of the discovery of injured children at the scene. In the video, you can see that the bongo truck [was] driving up to assist the wounded individual. In response the aerial weapons team crew — as soon as the individuals are a threat, they repeatedly request for authorization to fire on the bongo truck and once granted they engage the vehicle at least six times.

She further pointed to the attitude of the aerial weapons team when they learned about the injured children in the van, noting how their actions showed no remorse or sympathy for those they killed or injured, even exhibiting pleasure when a vehicle drove over one of the bodies.

Manning had come to see this everyday reality in Iraq from the perspective of those who have been conjured into the designation of ‘enemy’. From that moment, she began to see these unfolding human tragedies increasingly from the point of view of those she was trained to see as others; those who have been methodically demonized throughout this war of terror.

How should we understand this sudden awakening of conscience? In elucidating the etymology of the word conscience, the Jungian psychoanalyst Edward Edinger related it to the concept of consciousness:

Conscious derives from con or cum, meaning ‘with’ or ‘together,’ and scire, ‘to know’ or ‘to see’. It has the same derivation as conscience. Thus the root meaning of both consciousness and conscience is ‘knowing with’ or ‘seeing with’ an ‘other’. In contrast, the word science, which also derives from scire, means simply knowing, i.e., knowing without ‘withness.’ … The experience of knowing with can be understood to mean the ability to participate in a knowing process simultaneously as subject and object, as knower and known. This is only possible within a relationship to an object that can also be a subject.

Conscience first engages the empathic imagination, breaking down walls of separation. One can begin to feel another person’s pain as if it were one’s own. The moment Manning saw other human beings who she had been trained to see as ‘enemy combatants’ in the gunsight, she freed them from a perception enslaved by the subject position of US supremacy; a perception that had made these human beings into lifeless objects. Here, the other perspective that had long been denied was brought back to consciousness. Manning saw another human being whose life was as precious as hers; not an enemy, but a victim of an unjust war waged by an imperialist military-industrial complex.

In the famous chat log with hacker Adrian Lamo that led to her arrest, Manning recounted how she wanted “people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public… We’re human… and we’re killing ourselves…”

Manning saw what people too often fail to see: she saw those who had been branded ‘enemy combatants’ as human beings like herself. This happened also to US soldier Ethan McCord, who rescued the little girl from the bongo truck in the Collateral Murder video, and who realized she was no different from his own daughter:

Manning’s deed of whistleblowing was an act of conscience: knowledge gained by placing herself in a relationship with others; putting herself in the other’s shoes. She was willing to sacrifice her safety to restore a lost image; an inception point and authentic act of courage from a place of our common humanity.

Manning’s courage to act out of her conscience interrupted a trajectory of history that had been moving in a particular direction. The memory started to flow, reaching back before the invasion of Iraq, before 9/11 and even before the nation’s addiction to oil began — to the genocide of the natives; the moment when those who are made enemies became dehumanized in eyes.

Before anyone even starts talking about justification for acts of war, we should all be asking: who are these Iraqis and Afghans, these Libyans or Syrians who are so often portrayed as “putting America in danger”? In that iconic leaked footage from a fateful day in New Baghdad, who did we see or fail to see? Unfolding images of the decimated Reuters reporters shot from the Apache helicopter confront us with a question: are we truly civilized? Who are the people who have been dehumanized, turned into enemies and made into inferior beings?

One ordinary person with extraordinary courage offered the possibility to restart a genuine conversation about the legitimacy of Western “civilization” that has until now been operating as a monologue. Manning created a possibility for real dialogue, one that is long overdue. Her courage, and the tireless work of those at WikiLeaks, calls us to truly see these events beyond the political language that makes lies sound truthful and murder respectable.

Are we able to witness what is really happening — ongoing collateral murder carried out in our name — even right in this very moment? Manning’s conscience awakened her heart. We, too, can awaken our hearts, for courage is contagious.

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Nozomi Hayase

Nozomi Hayase is a writer who has been covering issues of freedom of speech, transparency and decentralized movements.

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