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In her first interview since President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence and she was released from the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Chelsea Manning explained to Nightline co-anchor Juju Chang why she leaked documents about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re getting all this information from all these different sources and it’s just death, destruction, mayhem,” she said, describing the period when, still Bradley Manning, she was an intelligence analyst at a U.S. military forward operating base in Iraq. “We’re filtering it all through facts, statistics, reports, dates, times, locations, and eventually, you just stop. I stopped seeing just statistics and information, and I started seeing people.”
That crucial transformation led Manning to release to WikiLeaks, among many other documents, a now-infamous 2007 video. It offered a graphic view of how the crew of an American Apache helicopter slaughtered civilians (including two Iraqi Reuters correspondents) on the streets of Baghdad and then riddled a “good Samaritan” van that tried to help those gunned down, killing its driver and wounding his two young children in the backseat — all this to a soundtrack of brutal, sardonic comments. As Manning explained at her 2013 court-martial, speaking of such videos as “war porn,”
“The most alarming aspect of the video to me… was the seem[ing]ly delightful bloodlust [the crewmen] appeared to have… [They] seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote dead bastards unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers… 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… Within minutes, the aerial weapons team crew learns that children were in the van and despite the injuries the crew exhibits no remorse. Instead, they downplay the significance of their actions, saying quote Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle unquote.”
Manning served seven years in a military prison for having grasped in a deeply personal and powerful way that, as she told the military judge at her trial, “not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare.” As TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author most recently of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, points out, this may, in fact, be the hardest thing for Americans thousands of miles from their country’s war zones to grasp. And yet, as she makes clear, not to grasp what’s been happening to the inhabitants, especially the children, of the Greater Middle East, where the U.S. has fought its disastrous war on terror for the last 15 years, means consigning our world to far worse in the future. After all, what else is likely to come from a region now in chaos, with failed states multiplying, a number of its great cities in rubble, its territories filling with ever more extreme jihadists, ethnic conflict on the rise, and staggering numbers of its inhabitants uprooted and brutalized?
I’m reminded of the last line of the short story “A Madman’s Diary” published in 1918 by the great Chinese writer Lu Hsun. In it, he imagines a man plunged into insanity and so freed to see, as no one else around him can, that his country is quite literally being consumed by cannibalism. (His was a vision of a “feudal” Chinese world, perched at the edge of modernity, that continued to eat itself alive.) The unforgettable final lines of his story are: “Perhaps there are still children who haven’t eaten men. Save the children…”
In significant parts of our world, in Lu Hsun’s terms, even the children are now being eaten and the Chelsea Mannings seem sadly few in number.