A Tale of Two Trials: Bradley Manning and Robert Bales

This appeal for sense and decency has been syndicated at HuffPo.

One is the constitutional trial of the century so far, which started Monday but may forever reshape how we police freedom of speech. The other is a bloodthirsty reminder of our failure to police our post-millennial resource wars, which have cost trillions and impacted, injured or killed millions. But as disconnected as they are, the trials of Bradley Manning and Robert Bales are nevertheless united in their death penalties. It’s a disturbing convergence that should force us to rethink everything we know about war crimes and international law.

Although the Army is reportedly only seeking the death penalty for Robert Bales, who brutally murdered 16 Afghan civilians in a drugged spree, he’ll likely plead guilty to his Kandahar massacre in a hearing this week to avoid becoming the first military death sentence carried out since 1961. Which means he’ll likely land a life sentence, just like the conscientious Bradley Manning, who opensourced the dark corners of America’s craven disaster capitalism. Manning’s ludicrously open-ended charge of “aiding the enemy” has given the United States the artificial moral latitude to argue that he’s getting the good cop: Life without parole.

But that’s some pretty crap math.

An idealist soldier calling out battlefield corruption by releasing damning information into the public record — and thereby, even in the estimation of his own prosecutors, physically injuring no one — is in no rational universe the same person as an uniformed thug — or thugs, if you don’t believe Bales acted alone — methodically annihilating unarmed families, then burning their bodies.

The record states that Bales only enlisted in the Army after an arbitrator found the pump-and-dump broker liable of fraud to the tune of $1.4 million. After that, he served three tours in Iraq, got into bar fights and dodged assault charges at home, then finished his military career with what is alleged to be a solo outing ending with the senseless shooting and stabbing of nine women and three kids, some as young as two. But who can argue with Bales’ own attorney — John Browne, who aptly defended serial killer Ted Bundy — when he loudly wonders why Bales was sent out on a fourth deployment to Afghanistan with head trauma and PTSD and whatever?

After all, the entire United States, suffering from a pernicious hyperreal strain of Bale’s alleged head trauma, has no hope of running the Middle East. It would know that, if it ever unplugged from its pervasive death culture, where banal killers like Bundy and Bales pulsate alongside Game of Thrones‘ orgiastic carnage as cool attractors.

But of course, the United States does have lots, and lots, of business bleeding in and out of the region. We were soaking its valuable oil and minerals in crisis and opportunity long before Bradley Manning was a thought in his mother’s mind. Futurists looking backward at this warped century would argue that we’ve only just begun.

This is really why Manning is getting the military’s hammer, when his alleged crimes remain laughable in comparison: His priceless disclosures are bad for business. Wikileaks will get it next.

Which is the death of irony, to be honest. “Collateral Murder” — the video Manning allegedly uploaded to Wikileaks, who thankfully gave it to the world — is littered with Bales-ian carnage. Doubtless it have would be an ace card in the prosecution’s pocket, were it only in the right trial. As a technocultural artifact of Bales’ historic massacre, its dead children, gallows humor and complicit military would not be a secret to keep from the people — which is evidently what America thinks “Collateral Murder” should be — but admissible evidence condemning a war crime.

Instead, America is arguing that Manning aided a lethal enemy who was buried deep beneath the sea long before his trial even started. By asserting that publicizing, wrongly or rightly, just how American tax dollars are being spent abroad is morally and legally equivalent with suiting up for a nameless enemy, the military’s case against Manning has redefined Kafkaesque. Now we’ll have to call it Manning-ian, or something.

Although his trial is occurring far away from most, one can still experience its existential tremors from afar. Every time one hears the scandalous buzzword “Wikileaks,” one can replace it with the more accurate phrase “the public record” and laugh-cry out loud as Captain Joe Morrow tries to make his case against the poor kid. Because, sorry, “Manning’s research warned him of enemies’ use of the public record” [emphasis obviously added] just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

Let’s get Real: Both the Obama administration and the military it cannot seem to straighten out, pardon the pun, know that Manning is doing the world a favor by taking bullets for naively outing crooked geochess way above his head. This is why he’s loyally backed by another veteran whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg — whose mother and sister were killed during a crash in front of his eyes, and who served revelatory tours in Vietnam, the Pentagon and the RAND Corporation. Ellsberg opensourced our pointless bloodbaths in Asia, which helped stopped them cold. Now the tragically underestimated people we used to toxically disappear make our Nikes and stuff. We could care less.

For his part, Bradley Manning’s perhaps improper but absolutely necessary disclosures have helped wind down our bloated operations abroad. But both our government and its citizenry evidently live in a different time now, one where we can’t get the nightly death counts from the ’60s on our news this century, despite the fact that we have more “news” and talking heads than ever. And so Manning is no Ellsberg, who was rightly sainted by a body politic sick of intractable quagmires and waste.

Today, we throw vets like Manning in holes. High-profile veterans organizations turn their back on him. Even Amnesty International is too scared to call him a political prisoner, despite the historical record and basic common sense and decency. It seems even yesterday’s saints are addicted to today’s endless wars.

So as this tale of two trials unwinds, please ask yourself if they have any reason whatsoever to be within shouting distance of each other. The headlines for the military over the last few weeks have been debilitating: More suicides than kills, more rapes than reason, more unnecessary funding in a new normal of increasing economic and environmental destabilization. The last thing it needs is to show the world it cannot tell the difference between a soldier who bravely served his country cold data from an executioner that murdered men, women and children in a cold-blooded fit of First-World rage. We’re in a fucking recession, people.

If Bales and Manning both escape the death penalty — which, to be clear, has no business in something calling itself a civilization, but we can argue about that later — then the military’s warped priorities go on further parade. The headlines this generates will be our only silver linings. Humanists like Manning would argue Bales does not deserve the horrific death he brought upon those whose country he polluted with his perversions of truth, justice and the American way. I would argue that he deserves a horrific life.

But Manning doesn’t even belong in the courtroom.