More Bloody Sesquicentennials

Today marks 150 years since Quantrill and his gang of brigands failed in their bid to find and tear Jim Lane limb-from-limb.  Instead, the Confederate “rangers” slaughtered 150-200 in Lane’s place of residence–Lawrence, Kansas.  Three weeks ago, I was flabbergasted to read that a William Clarke Quantrill Society has arisen in the “colonel’s” memory, actually going as far as selling tickets for a bus tour to commemorate the murderer’s bloodiest exploits.  The depravity of this Civil War-era war crime, rather than being relegated to the hushed tones of other wartime slaughters of defenseless civilians, is billed by the Quantrill Society as event worth commemorating:

Join the cross border bus trip for a unique look at Quantrill’s Raid from both sides of the Missouri/Kansas border raid

Again, I refuse to hyperlink to the QS. 

Coincidentally Pvt. Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison today for his exploits in “espionage.”  I use quotation marks because Manning’s impetus to going public appears to be another slaughter of defenseless civilians:

Manning released this graphic video of a U.S. Apache helicopter attack on a group of people gathered in Baghdad. Two were employees of the Reuters news agency. A member of the helicopter crew refers to the “dead bastards” he killed, and the crew lights up a passing van that stopped to help victims of the first round of gunfire.

Reuters unsuccessfully requested a copy of the video under the Freedom of Information Act, but only Manning revealed it to the world. An Army investigation into the attack, released only after Manning’s leak was published, concluded that the helicopter crew had followed the rules of engagement.

Followed the rules of engagement.  Let’s be clear–if the AH-64 crew were following proper ROEs, the U.S. Army (and the entire country by extension) has a major problem:

Manning, by whatever means, stumbled into a massive archive of evidence of state-sponsored murder and torture, and for whatever reason, he released it. The debate we should be having is over whether as a people we approve of the acts he uncovered that were being done in our names.

Slate was one of the few outlets to approach the Manning trial in a way that made sense. Their story took the opportunity of the court-martial to remind all of us of the list of horrors Manning discovered, including (just to name a very few):

  • During the Iraq War, U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape, and murder by Iraqi police and soldiers, according to thousands of field reports…
  • There were 109,032 “violent deaths” recorded in Iraq between 2004 and 2009, including 66,081 civilians. Leaked records from the Afghan War separately revealed coalition troops’ alleged role in killing at least 195 civilians in unreported incidents, one reportedly involving U.S. service members machine-gunning a bus, wounding or killing 15 passengers…
  • In Baghdad in 2007, a U.S. Army helicopter gunned down a group of civilians, including two Reuters news staff…

This last incident was the notorious video in which our helicopter pilots lit up a group of civilians, among other things wounding two children in a van, to which the pilots blithely commented, “Well, it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.”

Except that there had been no battle, none of the people on the street were armed, it was an attack from space for all these people knew – and oh, by the way, we were in their country, thanks to a war that history has revealed to have been a grotesque policy error.

Matt Taibbi’s pronouncement from the outset of Manning’s trial was sadly prescient:

Is Manning a hero, or a traitor? Did he give thousands of files to Wikileaks out of a sense of justice and moral horror, or did he do it because he had interpersonal problems, because he couldn’t keep his job, because he was a woman trapped in a man’s body, because he was a fame-seeker, because he was lonely?

You get the press and the rest of America following that bouncing ball, and the game’s over. Almost no matter what the outcome of the trial is, if you can convince the American people that this case is about mental state of a single troubled kid from Crescent, Oklahoma, then the propaganda war has been won already.

Because in reality, this case does not have anything to do with who Bradley Manning is, or even, really, what his motives were. This case is entirely about the “classified” materials Manning had access to, and whether or not they contained widespread evidence of war crimes.

This whole thing, this trial, it all comes down to one simple equation. If you can be punished for making public a crime, then the government doing the punishing is itself criminal.

The American people have always had immense difficulties coming to grips with acts of great depravity and violence done in our names, easily excusing the acts of those flying the flag and/or in uniform.  Pundits will even use the specter of long-past war crimes to justify slaughtering civilians in recently-ended wars…

…though the fact that yet another political colonel known for slaughtering civilians might order 84 American servicemen gunned down on December 17, 1944 probably shouldn’t be that surprising.  There simply aren’t enough Edwin Vose Sumners to go around…


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