Reflections on the sentencing of Bradley Manning
by James M. Branum
Legal Director of the Oklahoma Center for Conscience
Earlier today, PFC Bradley Manning was given a sentence of 35 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge for a variety of “crimes” related to his leaking of classified information. A military judge handed out the sentence but in reality the judge was simply a cog in the system, a system designed to crush the spirits of radical truthtellers, so that others won’t dare to tell the truth about the sins of the American Empire.
This case is personal for me in many ways. Like Brad I grew up as a misfit in a small town in Oklahoma. He of course went through trials I never went through, but I did taste of the experience of small town life to know that it takes incredible courage to be your own person in that kind of environment.
But there’s another place of connection I feel with Brad, and that is the burden of knowledge of horrible things done in our nation’s name.
In a couple of weeks I will be celebrating my 7th anniversary of becoming an attorney. This time has been spent almost entirely in the area of military/GI rights law, with many of my clients being combat veterans who have been to hell and back and are now stuck trying to rebuild their lives. These clients have told me stories that I can’t forget (even if I wanted to). Some of the stories are just the usual horrors of war (IED explosions, taking fire from the enemy but not knowing who the enemy is, being attacked by mortars, etc.), others are about mind-numbing boredom and frustration, and some about command incompetence and idiocy. Those stories are bad enough but there are other stories: stories of civilians being killed (sometimes by accident, sometimes not), stories of dead children on the side of the road, stories of dogs being shot just for the hell of it, stories of rape, stories of missions that had no purpose at all except for the harassment of the civilian populations, stories of 14 year old civilian boys being thrown into a truck and snatched from their family because they are 14 years old (this is especially haunting to me as two of my little brothers just turned 14), stories of prisoners being abused in every way possible – psychologically, physically and sexually.
With few exceptions, I don’t judge those who tell me these stories. Most were only witnesses to terrible events, but others actively participated in the events. But they all were stuck in a terrible system, a system designed to take away their individual autonomy and their ability to act upon their own moral bearings and conscience. Some of course find ways to push back against what they came to see as evil, most just tried to survive. Again, unless you were there you can’t judge, and I wasn’t there.
I do know that these stories are real. There are of course phony braggarts out there who make up crazy stories (but you can spot them from a mile away because those who have been hell don’t brag about it and must be coaxed to get them to tell you their stories), but the stories I’m talking about are the ones that were told to me by clients who have the proverbial “thousand yard stare” and who still have the hyper-vigilance of those who have been to combat, even when they are only dealing with a crowded Wal-Mart.
Bradley Manning saw far more than I have heard. He saw the terrible “Collateral Murder” video. He read the situation reports of stupid, pointless, hurtful missions. He saw with his own eyes what terrible crimes were being done in our names as Americans. And he had proof, not just stories. But unlike countless others who had access to this information, Bradley took action to try to right the wrongs.
We can of course debate whether he went about the leaks in the right way (an issue that Brad himself addressed in the sentencing phase of trial). I would argue, that like all sevicemembers, he made the best decision he could under terrible circumstances.
But that’s not really the point here. The point is that Brad told the truth! And in the end that is the best antidote to the terrible situation our nation is in. The American people are largely ignorant of what the American wars and occupations in the Middle East have been about. And the American people are particularly ignorant about the heinous ways that these wars have been conducted and the terrible positions we have put our servicemembers in. Thanks to Bradley Manning, we have at least some of the truth.
So that is why I will continue the struggle to seek freedom for Bradley Manning. And it is why many other Oklahomans are standing with him as well.
Today a few of us drove up to Brad’s hometown of Crescent, a town of about 1,200 people to hold athi small candlelight vigil. We were joined by a few local folks who knew Brad growing up. Admittedly it was a futile gesture, but for me the reason I went to Crescent is because this personal. I wanted to go to the town he grew up in to show him support.
It is time to make this personal. It is time to do all that we can do to secure Brad’s freedom. I hope you’ll find your own way to do this. But please don’t be silent. And please don’t forget Brad.
Additional Photos from tonight’s vigil in Crescent, OK:
(The photos on this post are free for use by the media. Please attribute to JMBzine.com)