What would you do if you uncovered something you knew to be profoundly wrong, something that the public had a right to know about but you weren’t supposed to tell? What if talking about it meant risking your job, your reputation, and maybe your freedom? Most of us would like to think we’d do the right thing. Yet how many would go the distance?
These were no doubt some of the questions whirling around in the mind of 23-year-old Chelsea Manning when, back in 2010, she leaked classified information while working as a US army intelligence analyst in Iraq.
The leaks included the chilling "collateral murder" video that showed soldiers in a US helicopter killing several Iraqis while laughing about the dead and the dying. They contained evidence of a mass killing of Afghan villagers, US opposition to a $5 per day minimum wage in Haiti (where leading clothing companies have factories), as well as revelations of torture at the Guantánamo Bay camp. They are also credited with revealing US complicity with repressive Arab regimes, a factor that contributed to the overthrow of corrupt Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In discussing her actions, Manning told Amnesty International: "Humanity has never had this complete and detailed a record of what modern warfare actually looks like. Once you realise that the co-ordinates represent a real place where people live; that the dates happened in our recent history; that the numbers are actually human lives – with all the love, hope, dreams, hatred, fear and nightmares that come with them – then it's difficult to ever forget how important these documents are."
Manning, whose grandfather, Billy Fox, emigrated from Dublin to Wales in 1948, wanted the world to understand the reality of war, the brutality and bloodshed that lie behind media headlines and depictions in video games, and the cowardly nature of drone-style warfare.
This is particularly important in the context of the Iraq war, a war widely accepted to have been based on lies, propaganda and the pursuit of oil.
“When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.” Manning stated during her 2013 trial.
Her motivations were in keeping with the sentiments of Nobel Peace laureate Dr Martin Luther King when he once said "an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law".
War crimes and state terrorism
Indeed there are some who say that Manning is a traitor, that the leaks endangered lives and risked national security. This does not however take into account that they helped expose war crimes and state terrorism, regardless of them being cloaked in the language of freedom and democracy.
What Manning did was to help shine a light on how wars like that in Iraq help fuel fundamentalism. The deaths of approximately 150,000 Iraqi civilians and a country decimated has left a generation vulnerable to the hate-mongering of vengeful minds. Destroying Iraq was always going to guarantee that the cycle of violent retribution continues.
When I met Chelsea's mother, Susan, in Dublin back in 2013, she told me Chelsea's grandmother used to always say to her "if you can't tell the truth then don't bother talking". It struck a chord with me. I was left wondering what influence this had on Chelsea's moral compass as she journeyed into adulthood. Could it be that Manning, like Edward Snowden, HSBC Swiss bank leaker Hervé Falciani, and the growing chorus of courageous whistleblowers, was prepared to walk the talk on that most basic human value – the truth?
In a statement following her sentencing, Manning declared “sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.”
Hero of truth
It is Chelsea Manning’s birthday today. She turns 28 and will spend it in Fort Leavenworth military prison where she has been for the past 5½ years as part of a 35-year prison sentence. Yet she refuses to lie down, continuing to campaign on foreign policy, transparency and gender issues, writing opinion pieces for the
New York Times
, and tweeting under the handle @xychelsea by using phone calls to dictate tweets to intermediaries.
In times of spin and geopolitical war games, it can be hard to know where to turn for the truth. This is why people like Chelsea Manning are so important. They offer to light the darkness, risking their freedom so we can have ours. This is all the more reason they should not be forgotten, especially on their birthday.
Human rights group Afri is holding a birthday vigil for Chelsea Manning at 6pm at the GPO, Dublin, today.
Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner, Fulbright scholar and member of the Council of State. ruairimckiernan.com