1-19: Manning-7, Petraeus-0

Military Justice: It’s Complicated

Two U.S. soldiers deploy to Iraq during undeclared war time, one a 4-star general and the other a private first class. Under ordinary circumstances their names would never appear together … anywhere. Their paths would never cross. But today they do. Both of these Americans, while wearing the uniform of their country, swore to uphold and defend the Constitution. Implicit at their swearing-in ceremony was the willingness to obey all legal and moral orders issued to them by their superiors.

Within the rigid rank structure of the Army, PFC Chelsea Manning could not “order” anyone to do anything. General David Petraeus, on the other hand, commanded the entire force. They served at opposite ends of the chain of command … literally. And yet, it turns out, both had access to “classified” material. And also, it turns out, both leaked said material. They were both wrong. They were both guilty of criminal activity under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It can easily be argued that each in his own way brought harm to America.

In brief, for sharing Top Secret information, which included actual names of intelligence operatives, to his lover/biographer, Petraeus was charged with no crime, never appeared before a jury, and in essence received a “naughty boy, don’t do it again” from the system.

Better than that,

You can read all about the general’s life and career in a hagiography written by David Pietras. For me, the title is almost as creepy as the near-homonym names of author and subject. What I have read of In the Footsteps of a Hero: The Military Journey of Retired General David H. Petraeus nauseates me. I expect more than career building at any cost from my heroes. Petraeus suffers from hubris, the fatal flaw that should have brought him to his knees. Before being outed as a philandering blowhard, Petraeus headed the CIA. The CIA!

Meanwhile, at the lowest rung on the ladder,

Chelsea Manning, who grew increasingly disillusioned with U.S. military presence and activity in Iraq, took it upon himself (living as a male at the time) to release a slew of classified material to Wikileaks. Wrong then, wrong now. Having by the time of her trial been allowed to identify openly as transgender, she was sentenced to 35 years in jail and has so far served nearly seven. Since passage of the “Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917,” no person has ever been sentenced to as many years as Manning, nor has any person served as much time in prison.

Apples or Oranges?

We can argue ad infinitum about the relative damage done to America by the treacherous actions of these two former soldiers. What is inarguable is that they both broke the law.

In one of his final actions as POTUS, Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence. Obama haters take note: he “commuted” Manning’s sentence, he did not “pardon” her. Petraeus walked, walks, and will continue to walk free. I guess the adage is true:

Privates go to jail, while generals go free.

When setting these cases side by side, for me, justice suffers. While we the public learned every detail of Chelsea Manning’s life during her incarceration and trial, as far as Petraeus goes, we mainly heard what a brilliant officer he was, not dragged-out specifics of his adultery and carelessness. Manning at least acted (inappropriately) out of a sense of honor, believing that the mission in Iraq was inherently wrong. Petraeus cannot claim that high ground. He spilled secrets to his mistress/biographer/running partner. His life story was in her hands, why not demonstrate to her how powerful he was?

With all due respect to retired General Petraeus, in the end, judging them by their final acts as active duty soldiers, PFC Manning is the bigger person. Bear with me here.

Remember the courtroom drama in A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson’s character—the commander at Guantanamo Bay—screams at Tom Cruise’s character, “You want me on that wall.” No, the audience realizes, Americans don’t want rogue soldiers running loose, deciding autonomously and despotically right from wrong.


The illustration at the blog’s top is the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. The blogger is a Vietnam Veteran, 1966-67. He is an author and past state chaplain for a major veterans organization. He welcomes comments on posts and encourages readers to subscribe to PTSDOutreach.com; two points: 1) it is free, 2) posts appear directly in your e-mail in-box.

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