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Chelsea Manning and William Calley: Parallel Lives

July 30, 2013


William Calley walks this earth a free man, and has done for forty years.  A confessed and duly convicted infanticidal mass murderer, he commanded the gang responsible for somewhere between 350 and 500 deaths of unarmed civilian men, women, children and babies at  My Lai, on March 16th 1968.  2nd Lt Calley was platoon commander of “Charlie” Company of 1st Battalion of the 20th Infantry Regiment.  On his orders, US troops systematically  raped, tortured and killed the inhabitants of the village.  Calley led from the front, getting his hands enthusiastically dirty and rallying his men to complete the slaughter as comprehensively as possible.

Following the widespread dissemination of unassailable physical evidence of the crime, William Calley was put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment but served  just three and a half years.  Taking the total duration of his detention from arrest in 1969 to release in 1974, we arrive at a total of 1846 days served mostly in the form of a rather benign version of house arrest.

Calley was not short of supporters during his relatively brief period of comfortable incarceration.  (Meanwhile, Hugh Thompson and Lawrence Colburn, two individuals who intervened to try to prevent the slayings at My Lai were subject to a vicious hate campaign and were denounced as traitors.)

The supporters of Calley came from two opposite quarters.  Firstly there were the Nazis (in all but name) who basically argued that anybody wearing a military uniform is by definition a hero, and should they wish to indulge in recreational rape, torture, or mass murder of civilians, then nobody in civilian clothing has any right to make any judgement upon such behaviour.  Furthermore, Vietnamese people are not to be regarded as human.  Calley himself argued in his own defense that he and everyone he knew in the military, believed themselves to be engaged in a righteous war of extermination, which naturally included civilian women, children and babies.  As one of many pious Nazis, Calley believed that no form of cruelty should be avoided when it comes to erasing the untermensch from the face of the earth.

Others condemned Calley’s arrest on the grounds that he was being scapegoated – that the whole military and political establishment was to blame for the massacre.   This may well be the case, but the idea that Calley was dealt with harshly seems impossible to sustain on any consistent ethical basis.  The Nuremberg trials continued despite the suicides of Hitler and Himmler, on the assumption that there comes a point where a military or militarized oath cannot absolve human beings from some more fundamental autonomy of ethical deliberation.  Those trials posited the notion that part of being human involves the individual ability to make judgements and that this ability cannot be (wholly) dissolved by a prior gesture of subordination.  The ability to resist a directive that conflicts with certain core values of humanity was thereby proclaimed a universal human responsibility that necessarily accompanies the declaration of so-called “universal human rights”.  The commission of war crimes require not only edicts from above but acquiescence from below and the holocaust was not, therefore, the exclusive responsibility of the policy making Nazis like Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich.

Chelsea Manning,  whose story is almost too familiar to bear repetition  has been in detention for… far more days than that, mostly in extremely harsh and degrading conditions.  What exactly does Chelsea Manning deserve?  Well, Manning certainly violated a professional oath.  It would seem therefore that she must accept certain professional consequences.  Such as being fired from her job.  Would everybody perhaps agree that Manning’s career in the US military is, and should be, effectively over?  Manning herself would argue that some things are more important than her job.  Perhaps she herself would agree that blind military obedience isn’t really her thing and that she was never really cut out for a career in the modern military?

Though found not guilty of actually “aiding the enemy” Manning was found guilty of lesser offenses which may well result in a sentence of a decade or so behind bars.  How long she will actually serve remains a hotly debated and debatable issue.  There are higher courts to appeal to and higher judgements to be made than the one that condemned Bradley Manning and incarcerates Chelsea Manning.  The ethical question involved is whether an oath of national loyalty functions as  a kind of transcendent signifier that organises all other ethical decisions.  Having sworn an oath as a US soldier, was Manning duty bound to disregard any subsequent and conflicting ethical promptings?

Answering such a question in the affirmative would certainly negate the validity of the Nuremberg Trials, since the murderers on trial had all sworn personal oaths of loyalty at least as binding as the oath that bound Manning.

Whatever Manning deserves or does not deserve he had already served a very heavy sentence.  She has served longer than Calley.  The exposer of war crimes has served longer than the perpetrator of war crimes.  When she is released, she will probably have to emigrate and/or change her name (again) given the number of people who have pledged to kill her. She will be reaping the consequences of her actions for the rest of her life.  The next campaign must be for a Presidential Pardon.  Calley received a version of a Presidential Pardon from Nixon.  Do we really want to tolerate the idea that Calley can be pardoned and Manning cannot?  If Obama does eventually pardon Manning, it will probably take place close to the end of his presidency, resulting in an incarceration of at least six and a half years.

Of course,  given the wicked world we live in, it would be almost culpable naive not to recognise that talking about children being killed is generally assumed to be a far worse crime than actually killing children.


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