Law & the Courts

By Commuting Bradley Manning’s Sentence, Obama Broke Faith with the Military

Manning in custody during his trial at Fort Meade in 2011. (Reuters photo: Benjamin Myers)
The military can’t function without trust and discipline. Manning’s commutation undermines that warrior ethos.

It might just take going to war to truly understand the nature of military justice. During my deployment to Iraq, I was the only JAG officer at an isolated outpost near the Iraq–Iran border. I worked closely with my commander on the dizzying array of disciplinary issues that arise on deployment: Soldiers fight, they sometimes defy their officers and NCOs, and some of them take drugs. Drop 800 men far into the most stressful situations imaginable thousands of miles from home and some will crack. It’s that simple.

But here’s the key to military justice: Both words matter. In the civilian system, we tend to think only of “justice.” Does the punishment fit the crime? Are we punishing the guilty? Are we vindicating the rights of their victims? But there’s an additional, supplemental goal to military justice. The Manual for Courts-Martial puts it this way:

The purpose of military law is to promote justice, to assist in maintaining good order and discipline in the armed forces, to promote efficiency and effectiveness in the military establishment, and thereby to strengthen the national security of the United States.

In other words, military justice is designed to make the armed forces more cohesive and effective, in addition to punishing service members’ crimes. Military justice helps preserve the warrior ethos.

The warrior ethos is simple, but profound: “I will always place the mission first, I will never accept defeat, I will never quit, and I will never leave a fallen comrade.” The amount of self-denial and self-sacrifice this requires is extreme and completely alien to most civilians. Does your job demand that you lay down your life for your colleagues? Does it demand that you follow orders even if following orders may mean death or serious injury? Do you have no option of resigning if you disagree?

For a military to function well under such circumstances, it must demand a degree of obedience and trust that is hard to fathom. The obedience requirement is clear: Soldiers must obey lawful orders. The trust requirement is just as vital: To do their deadly jobs, they have to trust that the men and women around them are also willing to lay down their lives for the mission and for each other. In essence, soldiers make two simple pledges: I will obey lawful orders, and I will lay down my life for the mission and my brothers and sisters.

Good commanders know that soldiers trust them to reinforce the warrior ethos with effective discipline. Soldiers who can’t be trusted can’t be coddled; violating orders, acting selfishly, or disregarding the mission can ultimately break units and armies.

Good commanders know that soldiers trust them to reinforce the warrior ethos with effective discipline.

Given that context, it’s obvious that Bradley Manning was no ordinary “leaker.” When he dumped hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic secrets into the public domain, he violated every single tenet of the warrior ethos. He abandoned the mission. He “accepted” defeat and, through his data dumps, worked to facilitate it. He quit on his comrades, acting with utter, callous disregard for their lives. His message to his unit and to his nation was clear: He would disobey lawful orders and risk killing his comrades to, in his words, stimulate “worldwide discussions, debates, and reforms.”

In such a case, commanders have a sacred obligation to protect their soldiers. It’s a matter of maintaining a bond with the men and women they lead. There can be no tolerance of true betrayal, and the military — to its credit — sought a severe sentence for Manning, attempting to make the punishment fit his crime. It fought for life imprisonment, and ultimately obtained a 35-year sentence that itself was an act of unreasonable mercy.

When Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence yesterday, he signaled once again that, even after eight long years as commander-in-chief, he simply does not understand the essence of military leadership or the core of military culture. By minimizing Manning’s crimes, he violated his own obligation to men and women in uniform. It was his job to enforce the lawful military norms that have been forged through centuries of bitter battlefield experience. Instead, he violated those norms, ensuring that Manning will serve no more time than men convicted of far more mundane crimes.

I have seen with my own eyes the character-building power of effective military discipline, of rehabilitating good soldiers and returning them to the fight. I have seen how punishing the craven returns resolve to fractured units. Reserve mercy for the true warriors, the courageous men and women who make mistakes. As for the traitors? Judgment should be their earthly destiny. Leave their mercy to the church.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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