Speech delivered by Justin Kauker on September 19, 2010 at the Free Bradley Manning, Exposing War Crimes is Not a Crime Rally in Downtown San Diego
The first time I saw Collateral Murder I had to remind myself: I’m watching people get killed. In our culture of entertainment soaked in violence, where we idle time with the most graphic glorification of death, Collateral Murder was too real. There was no trembling surround sound, no sparkles of an IMAX explosion, no chasing down bullets in slow-motion. Just round after round of 30 millimeter cannon fire pounding away life, all captured in monochrome lo-def. A pile of dead men, two wounded children, and an Apache helicopter making slow, steady circles around the ruins.
This was our war. Numb, disconnected death.
I found out about Collateral Murder through word of mouth. There had been a lot of talk about these civilians murdered in Iraq. Two journalists; a photographer and a driver. They had been working on assignment for Reuters when an Apache opened fire on them. My mind immediately went back to the 2003 killing of two war correspondents, blown up by a US tank in the hotel they were staying, a hotel filled with journalists. I thought it was strange that this time the military would even bother to mention to the public they had killed war reporters.
But of course they hadn’t. Someone exposed them. I barely had time to process the fact that someone managed to release evidence of more journalist being killed, and that the mass media was actually covering It, before I was hastily corrected. The media, along with the Army, were forced to acknowledge the situation. Because this wasn’t just a rumor whispered into the ear of the press. This wasn’t the often-ignored testimony from Baghdad locals. It was a video. And this footage, of two civilians, two journalists, getting killed by the Army, it wasn’t just sent to papers or cable news stations. It was sent to everyone. It was online.
It seemed incomprehensible to me. Someone released images from Iraq of the Army killing people trying to release images from Iraq. And they took the video from the Army itself. And if that wasn’t risky enough, this person bypassed the talking heads, bypassed the news outlets and gave an indelible record of war crimes to the entire world.
To call Collateral Murder, or The Afghan War Diary, a leak is an immediate invective of language. The government, the mass media, they call these things leaks, as though they are the slow, steady trickle of information tumbling without direction onto the American landscape. They would have us believe that leaks are the meaningless detritus sloughed off by a well oiled war machine. Evidence of murder doesn’t drip calmly from the battlefield. It has to be spirited away from enemy lines, gripped hard and hurled in the air, let to burn over the heads of the misinformed. In the fight for this country's conscience Collateral Murder is a flash grenade. It’s a bright, hot blast that for an instant breaks the darkness of war. It shakes us. It frightens us. But it gives us vision.
We need this desperately. We are a country that has seen its government suppress hundreds of photos of torture at Abu Ghraib, ban photos of military caskets from being published, embed journalists to keep them firmly at heel and let those unembedded hack it out in the cross-fire.
We’ve been lied to at every turn about Iraq. Its purpose, its progress, its end, they’ve all been subjected to fabrication. Our government has been nothing if not hostile to the freedom of information. And yet our press, beholden to advertising dollars, have capitulated time and time again to the will of a government determined to keep us sedate and compliant.
Yet someone actually stood up in the face of the most powerful military in the world and honored their duty to truth. We should all look at this event as a reminder that there are brave individuals willing to expose injustice, that if we try hard enough there is an antidote to the impotent corporate media, and we should all say with a voice of sincerest gratitude “About time.”
The man in jail right now for the releasing the video, and the thousands of reports and communiqués known as the Afghan War Diary, is a soldier by the name of Private Bradley Manning. I don’t know Bradley Manning. I don’t what his intentions have been, what his involvement is in this situation, or even if he was responsible for the releases. Neither, it would seem, does the US military.
We’ve come here in solidarity with Manning not because we are attesting to his guilt or innocence but because, like any prison of moral action, his future is sure to be dark and ugly. To persecute is to follow the path of least resistant, one that many eagerly follow. He demonstrated a kind of courage that is rarely seen, and the transparency it provides betters every man and woman in America. Manning sacrificed his career, his reputation and his livelihood to keep us informed. Some will call him a traitor, a coward, a treasonous threat to the country. They will say he recklessly endangered his people, that he is the moral equivalent of the terrorists themselves. This isn’t true.
The assertion that WikiLeaks and Collateral Murder are weakening the US military is the kind of sophistry that comes from war-mongers. Terrorists in Iraq will hardly find comfort in knowing that US is prepared to kill anyone Arab, be it civilian, woman or child. It’s doubtful they needed a Western website to remind them of that. It’s been claimed that by releasing accounts of Iraqi deaths we run the risk of instigating anti-US sentiment and emboldening our enemies.
Bradley Manning has been accused of putting the troops in unnecessary jeopardy by releasing classified information. Manning is not responsible for the risks that the troops face, nor is he responsible for inflaming an already virulent group of radicals. It is the people that send our men and women to fight, to die in a war of aggression that are responsible. It is the people who ask our soldiers to terrorize and kill innocent civilians, they are responsible. It is the people who take every mother, every father, every son and every daughter who wishes to serve their country and turns them into cannon fodder for their self-serving, imperialistic satisfaction. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, they put the troops in jeopardy. Barack Obama, Robert Gates, Hilary Clinton, the US Congress, they put the troops in jeopardy. Every war-hawk, every ideologue and every TV news personality that beats the war drum so loudly that no other sound can be heard, that allowed our country to go to war with virtually no debate, they put the troops in jeopardy.
We are being taught a chilling lesson: That the moral failing is not the invasion and occupation of a nation, or the routine abuse of its citizens, but its revelation to the world. Loyalty, they tell us, is silence. Silence is not loyalty. Silence is complicity. Silence is the aid that allows any crime to go unrecognized. Silence is the great enabler of war and the death of freedom. The very oxygen of a democracy is discourse and dissent.
The great danger to the government isn’t that the Afghan War Diary or Collateral Murder will be seen by the Taliban. It’s that they will be seen by you and me. They are afraid that we’ll understand what indignities and atrocities are being carried out in our name. They don’t want us to see how the war we own, bought with our tax dollars, is actually being conducted. Because with that will be the inevitable declined in support. The propaganda will have failed. This was the gift our democracy received, the gift for which Private Manning is now ostracized and imprisoned.
We’ve rallied today under the slogan ‘Exposing war crimes is not a crime’. But what has been exposed is another example of something much deeper: That war is the crime.
The true reason the government finds this video troubling is because it drops the curtain of war and shows it for what it is. We see the cold reality of combat, where in the anxiety of the battlefield a camera lens can look like an RPG, where warning shots are never fired, where unarmed men are killed for trying to help a badly wounded photographer writhing on the ground. It’s the faces of two children being pulled from a van, shot to perforated wreckage, children whose only crime was being passengers of men who were trying to pick up the helpless. It’s the sharp indifference driven into men asked to kill every day.
I’ve seen a lot of condemnation of the Apache helicopter operators, both for their disregard for human life and their callous commentary as they took it. But when I hear the excitement in their voice as they finish shooting, when I hear them trade snide remarks about the men lying dead in the streets and the children they’ve shot, all I hear is the sound of war.
All veterans are victims of war. Not just of the shrapnel, or the bullet, or the mortar. They carry with them tremendous psychological wounds that are difficult to heal. They must live with the devastation they were asked to commit, the friends they’ve seen die, and perhaps most damaging the violence that has been placed in their hearts. We have a duty to show them compassion. Moreover we should be thankful for the testimony they give us, those brave few who speak out, our generation’s Winter Soldiers and the whistleblower like Bradley Manning. It’s only through the voices of those who have fought the battle that we can truly hope to understand what it means to go to war.
Our support of Bradley Manning cannot end at this rally. We must stand behind him every day. We must let everyone know we will value and protect those who open our eyes to things we can’t see. There exist people, selfless and courageous, who would willingly to risk everything to bring information to the public, but they need our help. One of the highest honors we can pay to Bradley Manning is see his gifts to us for ourselves. Go read the Afghan War Diary, go watch Collateral Murder. Talk to people. Read. Research. Listen. Listen to all the voices, not just the loudest. Above all derive strength from his sacrifice. The life of our country depends on our participation.
So stand up, speak out, and never let fear become a prison for truth.
Justin Kauker is a conscientious objector and anti-war activist
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