The heroism of Chelsea Manning

Ciaron O’Reilly on the heroism of Chelsea Manning (Bay FM interview)
Anchor: Ciaron O’Reilly is an Australian anti-war activist who served two years in US and Irish prisons as a result of Ploughshare actions against the wars in Iraq. O’Reilly has devoted the last six years to solidarity actions for Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning.He spoke to Bay-FM’s Dr JOHN JIGGENS about the release of Chelsea Manning.
JJ: Ciaron O’Reilly what is your reaction to the release of the US military whistleblower Chelsea Manning after seven years imprisonment?

CO: Great relief. At the end of last year I was fairly convinced that Chelsea would attempt suicide again. There were two suicide attempts at the end of last year and it looked very bleak. It felt like she was coming to the realisation that she couldn’t do the rest of her 35 year sentence. So it was great relief.

Chelsea is very much a hero for our time and it is important to have such acts of heroism recognised. I think it is very important to build up a culture of solidarity with our people who are facing court or are in prison. I think the anti-war movement failed to do that with Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange.

I think people have to learn about solidarity. When you march against the war – and in London 2 million people marched against the war in 2003 – you implicitly incite people to non-violently oppose the war and to take risks against the war.

Ironically if you look at most of the resistance against the war, most of it, even the non-violent resistance, has come from people in the military, in terms of jail sentences, refusing to deploy, putting their weapons down and denouncing the war.

More of that kind of resistance came out of the military rather than the civilian anti-war movement. I think there’s a lot of posturing – there is this good phrase, what they call ‘virtue signalling’ – instead of real organising and resistance and solidarity.

This is a long war. It began 26 years ago. Chelsea was only four years of age at that stage when George Bush senior attacked Iraq, dropping the equivalent of eight Hiroshimas on the people of Iraq. After that it morphed into the sanctions under the Clintons, killing a million children by denying basic medical supplies and other equipment. And then, of course, a full-blown invasion under George Bush Junior and the occupation, and now it’s at another phase with IS, which we know organised in the dungeons and prisons of Iraq, so it’s been a long war. Chelsea was only 14 when the invasion happened in 2003, a war which she became part of when she was deployed there a few years later.
So the war hasn’t gone away. It is the anti-war movement that has gone away.

JJ: Why did you get involved in the solidarity campaign for Chelsea Manning?

CO: It comes out of my own experience of being an anti-war prisoner. I spent about two years in prison in the United States, and also Australia and Ireland, and I learned about the importance of solidarity, nourishing the spirits of political prisoners. I also felt that nonviolent resistance and exposing the war is the most significant thing that can be done. I think there is not much non-violent resistance going on at the moment because there is not a culture of solidarity. It is very significant to build a culture of solidarity, building that praxis.
Many historians argue that Chelsea’s exposure led to the Arab spring. They also probably led to the United States pulling out militarily. Once US war crimes had been exposed to the Iraqi government, they wouldn’t grant American troops immunity. That’s the reason why Obama withdrew the troops initially.

JJ: I am looking at a photo of you with Chelsea Manning’s mother Susan. How did you come to meet Chelsea’s mother and the family?

CO: Yeah, well most of our activism before the court martial in 2013 and the sentencing was in London and we did a lot of presence, along with Veterans for Peace and others at the U.S. embassy, whenever Chelsea was brought to court. The court martial ended up being three months long and once the sentencing happened we were in Britain and that’s where the maternal family was.

Chelsea’s mother Susan is a Welsh woman who met an American soldier, and married. The first child was born in Wales and then Bradley was born ten years later in Oklahoma. So she has six sisters and one brother and I travelled up to meet them after the sentencing and they had an Irish father themselves. Chelsea’s maternal family was from Dublin.
So I had a lot of contacts in Ireland from my own trials there, anti-war trials. It was a great move at the end of 2013 to bring the family over to Dublin. And Gerry Conlon who was one of the Guilford 4, the film “In the Name of the Father” was based around his experience – he served sixteen years in jail for something he didn’t do – he was willing to come down from Belfast and we had quite a big event. It was the first time the family of Chelsea Manning was with a large group of people that actually supported what she’d done.
That relationship developed, and actor/playwright Donal O’Kelly within about six weeks of that event brought a dozen artists, musicians and activists over to Wales. And there was probably five or six occurrences like that over the last 3 years when the family has come to Ireland. This Sunday actually, Chelsea’s mother will be in Dublin for a celebration of the release.

JJ: The family have issued a media statement about Chelsea’s release. It begins, “Chelsea has endured seven years loss of liberty for her whistleblowing actions while those whose wrongdoing she exposed have gone unpunished.” Could you speak to that?
CO: Chelsea is arrested when she is 22. She was actually in the military I think for a year or two before that. And was heavily bullied in the military, was actually been discharged when they needed more techie people in Iraq. And then was deployed to – I think it was Operation Base Hammer in Baghdad. And she came across evidence of war crimes and initially went to her commanding officer and said “this looks like a war crime!” and was told to ignore it, and then leaked the information.

Initially Manning tried to approach the New York Times and the Washington Post, but they weren’t interested, before going to WikiLeaks. So she was arrested in May of 2010. Their priority always, I believe, has been to get Julian Assange. She was initially tortured in Kuwait. She was kept in a cage in a tent where they kept changing the light and disrupting sleep, and other harassment before being taken to Quantico where she was also put in isolation and tortured – I think with the hope of breaking her to make up a story implicating Julian Assange.

JJ: What do you think of the mainstream media’s coverage of this issue?

CO: I think what they have learnt since Vietnam is how to wage war on the imperial perimeter, in this case in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Africa, while keeping a sense of normalcy at the centre, in North America, United States, Europe, Australia. In Australia we have troops from Brisbane’s Gallipoli Barracks deployed in the Iraq theatre at the moment. And we have bombers from Amberley dropping bombs from on high on Syria

You wouldn’t know it, there is no anti-war movement, there’s no tension about this. Occasionally someone is killed and they bury them, a bit of a form sentimentality rolled out by the government when that occurs. So the media plays a very, very significant role in maintaining a sense of normalcy while war is being waged. And all that is asked from us during this period, unlike Vietnam when they had conscription, unlike WW2 when they had rationing and a whole society mobilised for war, is our silence and our sedation.

All they ask of us is to avert our gaze and look the other way. And that’s what Manning refused to do in Iraq. She could have easily looked the other way and never had suffered for the last seven years.

It’s a great testimony to her heroism that she refused to do that!


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