A Soldier’s Defense of Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange

It’s a matter of principles over personalities. Whether one loves or hates Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange is besides the point. The First Amendment freedom of the press is at stake now. In this case the government’s tool for oppression is the Espionage Act, an archaic relic from America’s repressive World War I-era legislation. Chelsea Manning already served seven years of a 35-year sentence, one of the longest ever meted out to a whistleblower, and was recently jailed again after she refused to testify about WikiLeaks.

That was harsh and disturbing enough for those of us who value transparency regarding our national security state. Now the Trump administration has gone a step further and threatens, for the first time ever, to imprison an actual publisher – in this case Julian Assange. Charged on 17 counts of violating the Espionage Act, Assange – currently jailed in Britain – faces extradition and a lengthy sentence in the United States.

I’ve been called a whistleblower, myself, for my decision to write a book and articles critical of the American warfare state and the military to which I dedicated my entire adult life from the age of seventeen. But the truth is I’ve got nothing on Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange. Manning broke the law, risked it all, went to prison for her principles. Assange is headed for the same fate. And as a soldier I’m glad they did what they did!

Manning’s leak exposed serious war crimes, including U.S. Army helicopters shooting and killing Reuters journalists. Now, at first glance one would think soldiers should abhor the airing of their institution’s dirty laundry. But dig a bit deeper and my position makes more sense. See, such atrocities as Manning leaked and Assange published ultimately put US service members in grave danger. Abu Ghraib, the Blackwater massacre, and other atrocities feed terrorist and insurgent recruitment, increasing the likelihood that American soldiers will be killed. Thus, such war crimes must be exposed, grappled with transparently, and punished so as to discourage future counterproductive barbarism.

As for me, there was one aspect of the WikiLeaks revelations that was most vindicating. You see, all through 2006 and 2007 – when I was serving a brutal fifteen month tour in Iraq – senior army generals and just about every Cretan in the Bush administration repeatedly denied that the country had descended into a sectarian civil war. “The country is not awash in sectarian violence,’’ the senior General in Iraq, George Casey, claimed during the height of the maelstrom. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld asserted that UN and media accounts of massive bloodshed constituted “exaggerated reporting," and that Iraqi forces "were taking the lead in controlling the situation."

The thing is, that was a lie, and they both knew it! Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange exposed what we on the ground already knew to be true. My platoon and hundreds just like it, spent much of 2006 and 2007 discovering and counting the victims of the civil war unfolding around us. It was not uncommon to find the detritus of sectarian violence on a morning patrol – teenage bodies bound and with a bullet in the back of their heads. The images haunt me still and demonstrated, once and for all, that America’s illegal, immoral, and ill-advised invasion had unleashed a chaotic centrifugal civil war. That’s why countless Iraqis, even once oppressed Shia, told me time and again that life had been better under Saddam Hussein. The lies of Casey, Rumsfeld, and scores of other Bush apologists understated, and thus insulted, the complex turmoil we troopers had to manage. I for one was pissed!

See, I take it personal, the lies Washington told about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was 27 months of my life stolen, eight of my soldiers killed, so much of my conscience forever bruised. Thus I choose to stand with the law breakers this time around. After all, my oath was to the Constitution not to any specific legal statute or any individual president. Personally, I have my own reservations about Assange in particular, but that hardly matters now. Military men ought to be thanking both he and Chelsea Manning for exposing some of the most damning aspects of the unwinnable, unnecessary wars they had to fight.

What’s truly scary is the precedent that’d be set should the Justice Department successfully prosecute a publisher like Assange. After all, mainstream papers have long printed leaked classified documents they deemed news worthy. In fact, The New York Times, The Guardian, and many other prominent newspapers reported on the documents that Manning leaked and Assange published. How, then, can we be sure that such mainstream news outlets won’t be the next targets should they again publish future leaked information? The short answer is we can’t. That’s why the mainstream media had best put aside personal beefs with Assange and Manning and come to their spirited defense. Only I wouldn’t count on it. The left eats its own; it always has. Still, let me assure you: the media will regret such a decision in the near future.

The U.S. Government is waging, and escalating, a veritable war on whistleblowers, a war on press freedom itself. It’s a bipartisan effort too. President Obama, the supposed liberal, was absolutely awful on this issue. He used the Espionage Act against whistleblowers more times – seven – than all other presidents combined. But even Obama the prosecutor-in-chief stopped short of actually charging the publications that printed the leaked material. Trump has no such compunctions. His justice department is about drive a monster truck through the chasm in press freedom that Obama opened with his precedent-setting oppression.

Now is a time for solidarity. Media outlets running the gamut from Fox News to MSNBC, from The National Review to The Washington Post had better close ranks and raise the alarm. Otherwise an increasingly apathetic public will hardly notice, or remember, the day the First Amendment died. The press must remind the American people of all the stunning revelations they’d never have known about were it not for whistleblowers and their publishers. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, the My Lai massacre, Abu Ghraib, the CIA torture program, and mass surveillance – we have leakers to thank for each of these scandals and countless others.

So forget about whether you like Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, or WikiLeaks itself. This is no longer about John Podesta’s emails, Russia-gate, or any specific story WikiLeaks broke. It is about what is left of our ostensible civil liberties. About whether or not there is to be any check on government power. About whether we want to live in an increasingly Orwellian world. And it isn’t looking good, folks.

So consider this a desperate plea from a career soldier: pay attention! Defend those who subvert the military and government’s secrecy regulations. In such times real patriotism involves breaking the rules.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen