On August 21, Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea Manning), caught in the middle of a politicized legal process and social controversy, was sentenced to 35 years in prison, after receiving extensive media coverage for the nature of his act.
Despite this, the discussion of Manning’s case in mainstream media and social networks has concentrated on a “military” analysis, focusing on his discharge and sexual orientation. It has left aside a question that should be at the center of the debate and of a proposal to transform military structures throughout the world.
Can a soldier really disobey an order, a command, or military law, with the intention of protecting his or her conscience? That should be the question guiding this debate. Manning’s decision and the resulting consequences clearly highlight the enormous contradiction between the “values and principles” of the army and the structure that underlies its operations, not only in war, but in daily life as well.
If we were to ask this same question of any member of the “defense sector,” they would certainly argue (as Colombian military lawyers have repeatedly) that a soldier is obligated to refuse to carry out any order that implies an illegal or inappropriate action, and should denounce any superior or superiors whose actions lie outside the law. But when we look at the hundreds of cases in which people like Manning have been convicted, dishonorably discharged from the institution, threatened, and even killed, for publically denouncing crimes and arbitrary actions committed by the military, this statement quickly loses meaning.
When Congress passed the “Whistleblower Protection Act” (WPA) in 1989 , it established a legal framework, so that persons in situations like Manning could denounce without fear of reprisal or threats as a result of to their actions. Manning’s 35-year sentence definitively contradicts the intentions of that law. Similarly, in Colombia, despite the supposition that all military personnel comply with the established constitutional mandate above any other order, the reality continually demonstrates the contrary.
Although there have been numerous illustrative cases, the “false positives” scandal – in which military personnel carried out 2,180 extrajudicial executions , killing young campesinos and urban-dwelling, low-income men and later presenting them as “guerrillas killed in combat” – remains one of the most definitive and tragic examples. Although soldiers participating in these crimes understood the criminal nature of their actions, the majority of those implicated claim to have been only following orders.
In a case similar to Manning’s, Corporal John Lewis Rivas decided to denounce his superiors and confess that he had participated in the extrajudicial executions. In response to his declaration, Lewis, defense attorneys involved in his case, and others have received multiple threats, despite requests by the Prosecutor General and the United Nations that he receive special protection. To this day the case is stalled in the courts.
In fact, in response to Corporal Lewis, the military released an announcement with the intention of dishonoring his military service and discrediting him psychologically. In an unprecedented act that was highlighted in mainstream media, the release stated that Lewis had nine open investigations against him, the majority for disobedience, and claimed he had refused psychological and psychiatric exams.
The severity and pressure applied in court proceedings against whistleblowers contrast absurdly with the impunity, weakness and “softness” that characterize judicial cases against soldiers implicated in serious human rights abuses. The cases of Manning and Lewis should become examples to follow for thousands of military soldiers who also feel the moral obligation to voice their conscience. Linguist Noam Chomsky has even affirmed that, “Manning should be praised for letting citizens know what their government has been doing behind their backs.” But instead, they have received threats and prison sentences that are difficult to appeal.
Through situations such as these, the military has sent a message to its soldiers: while inside the institution, it is better to renounce the obligations of conscience and ignore the internal voice that holds you back when you are at the point of carrying out or participating in an unjust action. But on the other hand, the price you pay for listening to your conscience is freedom, and sometimes life itself.
Human beings like Manning and John Lewis who have dedicated themselves to defending their consciences should know that these actions have helped save hundreds of lives, as well as contributed to the revelation of the crude and perverse reality of war. At this point, any youth who joins the military looking to become a “hero” will have to be more aware of the actions of their superiors and colleagues, than the actions of the “enemy” they are ordered to combat.
Alejandro Parra is a member of the Action Collective of Conscientious Objectors of Colombia (ACOOC).