WikiLeaks, Manning and the Pentagon: Blood on whose hands?

The bodycount that resulted from Pfc Manning’s leaks have amounted to zero thus far, while his accusers stand bloody.

Article 32 Military Hearing Held For Bradley Manning At Fort Meade
Pfc Manning is just one of the ranks of US military whistleblowers [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – Who in their right mind wants to talk about, think about, or read a short essay about… civilian war casualties? What a bummer, this topic, especially since our Afghan, Iraq, and other ongoing wars were advertised as uplifting acts of philanthropy: Wars to spread security, freedom, democracy, human rights, gender equality, the rule of law, etc.

A couple of hundred thousand dead civilians have a way of making such noble ideals seem like dollar-store tinsel. And so, throughout our decade-long foreign policy debacle in the Greater Middle East, we in the US have generally agreed that no one shall commit the gaucherie of dwelling on (and “dwelling on” = fleetingly mentioned) civilian casualties. Washington elites may squabble over some things, but as for foreigners killed by our numerous wars, our Beltway crew adheres to a sullen code of omertà.

“Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties – but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning.”

Club rules do, however, permit one loophole: Washington officials may bemoan the nightmare of civilian casualties – but only if they can be pinned on a 24-year-old Army private first class named Bradley Manning.

Pfc Manning, you will remember, is the young soldier who is soon to be court-martialled, accused of passing some 750,000 military and diplomatic documents, a large chunk of them classified, to the website WikiLeaks. Among those leaks, there was indeed some serious stuff about how the US dealt with civilians in invaded countries. For instance, the documents revealed that the US military, then the occupying force in Iraq, did little or nothing to prevent Iraqi authorities from torturing prisoners in a variety of gruesome ways, sometimes to death.

Then there was that gun-sight video – unclassified, but buried in classified material – of a US Apache helicopter opening fire on a crowd on a Baghdad street, gunning down a dozen men, including two Reuters employees, and injuring more, including children. There were also those field reports about how jumpy US soldiers repeatedly shot down civilians at roadside checkpoints; about night raids gone wrong both in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a count of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians, a tally whose existence the US military had previously denied possessing.

Together, these leaks and many others offered a composite portrait of military and political debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan whose grinding theme has been civilian casualties, a fact not much noted here in the US. A tiny number of low-ranking US soldiers have been held to account for rare instances of premeditated murder of civilians, but most of the troops who kill civilians amid the chaos of war are not tried, much less convicted. We don’t talk about these cases a lot either. On the other hand, officials of all types make free with lusty condemnations of Bradley Manning, whose leaks are luridly credited with potential (though not actual) deaths.

Inside Story Americas –
Punishing the whistleblower?

Putting lives in danger

“[WikiLeaks] might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the release of the Afghan War Logs in July 2010. This was, of course, the same Admiral Mullen who had endorsed a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan, which would lead to a tremendous “surge” in casualties among civilians and soldiers alike. Here are counts – undoubtedly undercounts, in fact – of real Afghan corpses that, at least in part, resulted from the policy he supported: 2,412 in 2009, 2,777 in 2010, 1,462 in the first half of 2011, according to the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan. As far as anyone knows, here are the corpses that resulted from the release of those WikiLeaks documents: 0. (And don’t forget, the stalemate war with the Taliban has not budged in the period since that surge.) Who, then, has blood on his hands, Pfc Manning – or Admiral Mullen?

Of course, the admiral is hardly alone. In fact, whole tabernacle choirs have joined in the condemnation of Manning and WikiLeaks for “causing” carnage, thanks to their disclosures.

Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defence under George W Bush and then Barack Obama, also spoke sternly of Manning’s leaks, accusing him of “moral culpability”. He added: “And that’s where I think the verdict is ‘guilty’ on WikiLeaks. They have put this out without any regard whatsoever for the consequences.”

This was, of course, the same Robert Gates who pushed for escalation in Afghanistan in 2009 and, in March 2011, flew to the Kingdom of Bahrain to offer his own personal “reassurance of support” to a ruling monarchy already busy shooting and torturing non-violent civilian protesters. So again, when it comes to blood and indifference to consequences, Bradley Manning – or Robert Gates?

Nor have such attitudes been confined to the military. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Manning’s (alleged) leak of 250,000 diplomatic cables of being “an attack on the international community” that “puts people’s lives in danger, threatens our national security, and undermines our efforts to work with other countries to solve shared problems”.

As a senator, of course, she supported the invasion of Iraq in flagrant contravention of the UN charter. She was subsequently a leading hawk when it came to escalating and expanding the Afghan war, and is now responsible for distributing an annual $1.3bn in military aid to Egypt’s ruling junta whose forces have repeatedly opened fire on nonviolent civilian protesters. So who’s been attacking the international community and putting lives in danger, Bradley Manning – or Hillary Clinton?

Listening Post –
Bradley Manning vs the US military

Harold Koh, former Yale Law School dean, liberal lion, and currently the State Department’s top legal adviser, has announced that the same leaked diplomatic cables “could place at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals – from journalists to human rights activists and bloggers to soldiers to individuals providing information to further peace and security”.

This is the same Harold Koh who, in March 2010, provided a tortured legal rationale for the Obama administration’s drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, despite the inevitable and well-documented civilian casualties they cause. So who is risking the lives of countless innocent individuals, Bradley Manning – or Harold Koh?

Much of the media have clambered aboard the bandwagon, blaming WikiLeaks and Manning for damage done by wars they once energetically cheered on.

In early 2011, to pick just one example from the ranks of journalism, New Yorker writer George Packer professed his horror that WikiLeaks had released a memo marked “secret/noforn” listing spots throughout the world of vital strategic or economic interest to the United States. Asked by radio host Brian Lehrer whether this disclosure had crossed a new line by making a gratuitous gift to terrorists, Packer replied with an appalled yes.

Now, among the “secrets” contained in this document are the facts that the Strait of Gibraltar is a vital shipping lane and that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is rich in minerals. Have we become so infantilised that factoids of basic geography must be considered state secrets? (Maybe, best not to answer that question.) The “threat” of this document’s release has since been roundly debunked by various military intellectuals.

“Civilian casualties do not seem to have been on [George] Packer’s mind when he supported the invasion of Iraq, nor has he written much about them since.”

Nevertheless, Packer’s response was instructive. Here was a typical liberal hawk, who had can-canned to the post-9/11 drumbeat of war as a therapeutic wake-up call from “the bland comforts of peace“, now affronted by WikiLeaks’ supposed recklessness. Civilian casualties do not seem to have been on Packer’s mind when he supported the invasion of Iraq, nor has he written much about them since.

In an enthusiastic 2006 New Yorker essay on counter-insurgency warfare, for example, the very words “civilian casualties” never come up, despite their centrality to COIN theory, practice, and history. It is a fact that, as Operation Enduring Freedom shifted to counter-insurgency tactics in 2009, civilian casualties in Afghanistan skyrocketed. So, for that matter, have US military casualties. (More than half of US military deaths in Afghanistan occurred in the past three years.)

Liberal hawks such as Packer may consider WikiLeaks out of bounds, but really, who in these last years has been the most reckless, Bradley Manning – or George Packer and some of his pro-war colleagues at the New Yorker such as  Jeffrey Goldberg (who has since left for the Atlantic Monthly, where he’s been busily clearing a path for war with Iran) and editor David Remnick?

Centrist and liberal non-profit think-tanks have been no less selectively blind when it comes to civilian carnage. Liza Goitein, a lawyer at the liberal-minded Brennan Centre at NYU Law School, has also taken out after Bradley Manning. Amid an otherwise deft diagnosis of Washington’s compulsive urge to over-classify everything – the federal government classifies an amazing 77 million documents a year – she pauses just long enough to accuse Manning of “criminal recklessness” for putting civilians named in the Afghan War logs in peril – “a disclosure”, as she puts it, “that surely endangers their safety”.

 Manning ‘endangered US security’

It’s worth noting that, until the moment Goitein made this charge, not a single report or press release issued by the Brennan Centre has ever so much as uttered a mention of civilian casualties caused by the US military. The absence of civilian casualties is almost palpable in the work of the Brennan Centre’s programme in “Liberty and National Security“.  For example, this programme’s 2011 report “Rethinking Radicalisation“, which explored effective, lawful ways to prevent US Muslims from turning terrorist, makes not a single reference to the tens of thousands of well-documented civilian casualties caused by US military force in the Muslim world, which according to many scholars is the prime mover of terrorist blowback. The report on how to combat the threat of Muslim terrorists, written by Pakistan-born Faiza Patel, does not, in fact, even contain the words “Iraq”, “Afghanistan”, “drone strike”, “Pakistan” or “civilian casualties”.

This is almost incredible, because terrorists themselves have freely confessed that what motivated their acts of wanton violence has been the damage done by foreign military occupation back home or simply in the Muslim world. Asked by a federal judge why he tried to blow up Times Square with a car bomb in May 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad answered that he was motivated by the civilian carnage the US had caused in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. How could any report about “rethinking radicalisation” fail to mention this? Although the Brennan Center does much valuable work, Goitein’s selective finger-pointing on civilian casualties is emblematic of a blindness to war’s consequences widespread among institutions in the US.

Military whistleblowers

Knowledge may indeed have its risks, but how many civilian deaths can actually be traced to the WikiLeaks’ revelations? How many military deaths? To the best of anyone’s knowledge, not a single one. After much huffing and puffing, the Pentagon has quietly denied – and then denied again – that there is any evidence at all of the Taliban targeting the Afghan civilians named in the leaked war logs.

In the end, the “grave risks” involved in the publication of the War Logs and of those State Department documents have been wildly exaggerated. Embarrassment, yes. A look inside two grim wars and the workings of imperial diplomacy, yes. Blood, no.

Supporters liken Manning’s
detention to torture

On the other hand, the grave risks that were hidden in those leaked documents, as well as in all the other government distortions, cover-ups, and lies of the past decade, have been graphically illustrated in aortal red. The civilian carnage caused by our rush to war in Iraq and by our deeply entrenched stalemate of a war in Afghanistan (and the Pakistani tribal borderlands) is not speculative or theoretical but all-too real.

And yet no one anywhere has been held to much account: not in the political class, not in the military, not in the think-tanks, not among the scholars, nor the media. Only one individual, it seems, will pay, even if he actually spilled none of the blood. Our foreign policy elites seem to think Bradley Manning is well-cast for the role of fall guy and scapegoat. This is an injustice.

Someday, it will be clearer to those in the US that Pfc Manning has joined the ranks of great US military whistleblowers such as  Dan Ellsberg (who was first in his class at Marine officer training school); Vietnam War infantryman Ron Ridenhour, who blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre; and the sailors and marines who, in 1777, reported the torture of British captives by their politically connected commanding officer. These servicemen, too, were vilified in their times. Today, we honour them, as someday Pfc Manning will be honoured.

Chase Madar is the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, to be published by OR Books in February. He is an attorney in New York, a TomDispatch regular, and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, American Conservative Magazine, and CounterPunch.

A version of this article first appeared on

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.