Bradley Manning’s humanity will stand out, irrespective of what sentence he gets

Telling people civilians are being killed seen as a bigger crime than killing civilians

Bradley Manning was scheduled to speak yesterday at the sentencing phase of his trial for having leaked 750,000 pages of classified documents and videos to WikiLeaks. He is widely expected effectively to get a life sentence. But he has already served more time than was served in total by William Calley in the days of the Vietnam war.

Manning was convicted on July 30th of 21 offences. He has been in custody since his arrest in May 2010 – 39 months, 11 in solitary confinement.

The information divulged to WikiLeaks concerned the killing of Iraqi civilians in US airstrikes, massacres by mercenaries employed by the Blackwater company, the politics of rendition and torture programmes, and much more.

Manning says he was prompted to disclose the material by the “collateral murder” video showing US troops shooting a dozen Iraqi civilians from an Apache helicopter in Baghdad in July 2007. He declared in his original defence statement: “The most alarming aspect to me was the seemingly delightful (sic) bloodlust they appeared to have . . . congratulating each another on their ability to kill in large numbers.” He had hoped that “the public would be as alarmed as me”.


'Discredit upon the armed forces'
Manning's charge-sheet alleged his conduct in releasing the information had been "of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces." It wasn't killing civilians in the name of the people that was accounted reprehensible, then, but allowing the people to know innocent civilians were being killed in their name.

Calley was sentenced to life on March 31st, 1971, for his leadership role in the killing of 504 Vietnamese civilians, almost all of them women and children, in the village of My Lai on March 16th, 1968. He didn’t deny what had happened or his own involvement but insisted he had only been following orders.

The My Lai story was broken by Seymour Hersh in the St Louis Post-Dispatch in November 1969. Hersh's account and others subsequently compiled told of villagers killed and left in heaps in the huts where they had huddled in terror, arranged into groups and machine-gunned at a range of 10 to 15 feet, made to stand in line at the brim of the ditches their bodies were to tumble into. Women were gang-raped and then shot dead. A child was raped with a bayonet.

Within 24 hours of Calley being sentenced, president Richard Nixon ordered his transfer from military prison to "house arrest" in the officers' quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia. He was released after 41 months, in September 1974.

These are bleak stories from American wars almost half a century apart. But there is brightness in both of them, too. Look closely at the “collateral” video ( and you will see a man in combat uniform running away from the scatter of bodies with a child in his arms. This is US army specialist Ethan McCord, who had been involved in a firefight with insurgents a few blocks away and now came running.

“The next thing I saw was the little girl in the van. She had a stomach wound and she had glass in her eyes and in her hair . . . And the next thing I saw was the boy . . . And then the father in the driver’s seat slumped over on his side. I figured both of them were dead.

“So, the first thing I did was grab the girl. I grabbed the medic . . . He runs the girl to the Bradley (tank). I went back outside to the van, and that’s when the boy took, like, a laboured, breath . . . I started screaming, ‘The boy’s alive! The boy’s alive!’ And I picked him up and started running with him over to the Bradley. He opened his eyes . . . I just kept telling him, ‘Don’t die, don’t die.’ Then I got yelled at by my platoon leader that I needed to stop trying to save these mother-f****** kids and go pull security.”

The medic managed to get Sajad Mutashar (10) and his sister, Doaha (five), to hospital. Both survived. Their father, Saleh, did not.

Helicopter pilot Hugh Clowers Thompson jnr came upon the My Lai massacre as he flew over an irrigation ditch which he could see was filled with bodies. He radioed: "Something ain't right about this. There's bodies everywhere. There's a ditch full of bodies that we saw. There's something wrong."

He saw a group of about 20 civilians, including children, running pell-mell from soldiers waving guns, plainly intent on catching and killing them. He landed between the villagers and the soldiers and told his crew: “Y’all cover me! If these bastards open up on me or these people, you open up on them. Promise me!”

Thompson dismounted, confronted and faced down the pursuing pack, then called in two other helicopters to evacuate the villagers. He wrote an account of the events and sent it “up the line”, where it might still languish had Hersh’s story the following year not bounced My Lai on to front pages across the world.

The point is that even in the murk of the horror of imperial war, there is always the glow of invincible humanity, always Ethan McCords and Hugh Thompsons, and always Bradley Mannings too, and they will win in the end.