This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In her first interview since President Obama commuted her 35-year sentence and she was released from the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Chelsea Manning explained to Nightline co-anchor Juju Chang why she leaked documents about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We're getting all this information from all these different sources and it's just death, destruction, mayhem," she said, describing the period when, still Bradley Manning, she was an intelligence analyst at a U.S. military forward operating base in Iraq. "We're filtering it all through facts, statistics, reports, dates, times, locations, and eventually, you just stop. I stopped seeing just statistics and information, and I started seeing people."
That crucial transformation led Manning to release to WikiLeaks, among many other documents, a now-infamous 2007 video. It offered a graphic view of how the crew of an American Apache helicopter slaughtered civilians (including two Iraqi Reuters correspondents) on the streets of Baghdad and then riddled a "good Samaritan" van that tried to help those gunned down, killing its driver and wounding his two young children in the backseat -- all this to a soundtrack of brutal, sardonic comments. As Manning explained at her 2013 court-martial, speaking of such videos as "war porn,"
"The most alarming aspect of the video to me... was the seem[ing]ly delightful bloodlust [the crewmen] appeared to have... [They] seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote dead bastards unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers... While saddened by the aerial weapons team crew's lack of concern about human life, I was disturbed by the response of the discovery of injured children at the scene... Within minutes, the aerial weapons team crew learns that children were in the van and despite the injuries the crew exhibits no remorse. Instead, they downplay the significance of their actions, saying quote Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle unquote."- Advertisement -
Manning served seven years in a military prison for having grasped in a deeply personal and powerful way that, as she told the military judge at her trial, "not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare." As TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and author most recently of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, points out, this may, in fact, be the hardest thing for Americans thousands of miles from their country's war zones to grasp. And yet, as she makes clear, not to grasp what's been happening to the inhabitants, especially the children, of the Greater Middle East, where the U.S. has fought its disastrous war on terror for the last 15 years, means consigning our world to far worse in the future. After all, what else is likely to come from a region now in chaos, with failed states multiplying, a number of its great cities in rubble, its territories filling with ever more extreme jihadists, ethnic conflict on the rise, and staggering numbers of its inhabitants uprooted and brutalized?
I'm reminded of the last line of the short story "A Madman's Diary" published in 1918 by the great Chinese writer Lu Hsun. In it, he imagines a man plunged into insanity and so freed to see, as no one else around him can, that his country is quite literally being consumed by cannibalism. (His was a vision of a "feudal" Chinese world, perched at the edge of modernity, that continued to eat itself alive.) The unforgettable final lines of his story are: "Perhaps there are still children who haven't eaten men. Save the children..."
In significant parts of our world, in Lu Hsun's terms, even the children are now being eaten and the Chelsea Mannings seem sadly few in number. Tom
Where Have All the Children Gone?
The Age of Grief
By Karen J. Greenberg
"This is a war against normal life." So said CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward, describing the situation at this moment in Syria, as well as in other parts of the Middle East. It was one of those remarks that should wake you up to the fact that the regions the United States has, since September 2001, played such a role in destabilizing are indeed in crisis, and that this process isn't just taking place at the level of failing states and bombed-out cities, but in the most personal way imaginable. It's devastating for countless individuals -- mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers -- and above all for children.
Ward's words caught a reality that grows harsher by the week, and not just in Syria, but in parts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, among other places in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Death and destruction stalk whole populations in Syria and other crumbling countries and failed or failing states across the region. In one of those statistics that should stagger the imagination, devastated Syria alone accounts for more than five million of the estimated 21 million refugees worldwide. And sadly, these numbers do not reflect an even harsher reality: you only become a "refugee" by crossing a border. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in 2015 there were another 44 million people uprooted from their homes who were, in essence, exiles in their own lands. Add those numbers together and you have one out of every 113 people on the planet -- and those figures, the worst since World War II, may only be growing.
Rawya Rageh, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, added troubling details to Ward's storyline, among them that deteriorating conditions in war-torn Syria have made it nearly "impossible to find bread, baby formula, or diapers... leaving survivors at a loss for words" (and just about everything else). Meanwhile, across a vast region, families who survive as families continue to face the daily threat of death, hunger, and loss. They often are forced to live in makeshift refugee camps in what amounts to a perpetual state of grief and fear, while the threat of rape, death by drone or suicide bomber, or by other forms of warfare and terror is for many just a normal part of existence, and parental despair is the definition of everyday life.
When normal life disintegrates in this way, the most devastating impact falls on the children. The death toll among children in Syria alone reached at least 700 in 2016. For those who survive there and elsewhere, the prospect of homelessness and statelessness looms large. Approximately half of the refugee population consists of young people under the age of 18. For them and for the internally displaced, food is often scarce, especially in a country like Yemen, in the midst of a Saudi-led, American-backed war in which civilians are commonly the targets of airstrikes, cholera is spreading, and a widespread famine is reportedly imminent. In a Yemeni scenario in which 17 million people now are facing "severe food insecurity," nearly two million children are already acutely malnourished. That number, like so many others emerging from the disaster that is the twenty-first-century Middle East, is overwhelming, but we shouldn't let it numb us to the simple fact that each and every one of those two million young people is a child like any other child, except that he or she is being deprived of the chance to grow up undamaged.- Advertisement -
And for those who do escape, who actually make it to safer countries beyond the immediate war zone, life still remains fragile at best with little expectation of a sustainable future. More than half of the six million school-age children who are refugees, reports the UNHCR, have no schools to attend. Primary schools are scarce for them and only 1% of refugee youth attend college (compared to a global average of 34%). Startling numbers of such refugees are engaged in child labor under terrible working conditions. Worse yet, a significant number of child refugees are traveling alone. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), "at least 300,000 unaccompanied and separated children were recorded in some 80 countries in 2015-2016... easy prey for traffickers and others who abuse and exploit them."
Such children, mired in poverty and dislocation, are aptly described as growing up in a culture of deprivation and grief. At least since the creation of UNICEF in 1946, an agency initially focused on the needs of the young in the devastated areas of post-World War II Europe, children at risk have posed a challenge to the world. In recent years, however, the traumas experienced by such young people have been rising to levels not seen since that long-gone era.
A heartbreaking story by Rachel Aviv in the New Yorker catches the extremity of both the plight faced by child refugees and possible reactions to it. She reports on a group of them in Sweden, largely from "former Soviet and Yugoslav states," whose families had been denied asylum and were facing deportation. A number of them suffered from a modern version of a syndrome once known as "voodoo death," in which a child falls into a coma-like trance of severe apathy. Doctors have termed this state "resignation syndrome, an illness that is said to exist only in Sweden, and only among refugees." Fearing ouster and threatened with being deprived of the ties they had already formed in that country, they simply turned off, physically as well as emotionally.