In the summer of 2010 Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning had a profound impact on my life. I had been in the Royal Navy as a submariner medic for 5 years when Wikileaks, in collaboration with The Guardian, New York Times and Der Spiegel, released the Afghan War Diary and Iraq War Logs. This huge cache of information exposed the true human cost of the wars in the Middle East.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not popular but I had never questioned the official line. We were there to get the ‘bad guys’, empower women and build a safer future abroad and at home by ‘winning hearts and minds.’ The people putting forward the antithetical argument, in my eyes then as a serving member of the armed forces, lacked credibility with regards to their expertise, knowledge and experience. To me, and I’m sure other servicemen and women, they were hippies who didn’t understand.
Wikileaks changed all this. The information released, and processed through various news media outlets, detailed the human cost of war in the Middle East with cold hard data. Data that was legitimate as it originated from the military itself. I trawled through countless spreadsheets, reports and infographics highlighting the underreported civilian casualties. Some of these were corroborated with witness testimony such as air strikes ordered on a wedding party and family compound. I remember unashamedly shedding a tear the first time I saw the Collateral Murder video. To see such callousness and disregard for human life by the crew of the Apache helicopters made me question the part I played in the military machine.
After extensive soul-searching and discussions with people close to me I arrived at the conclusion that I could no longer, in good conscience, continue to serve in the military. I could either go AWOL (as many war-resisters have in previous conflicts), get myself kicked out for drug use (I did not use drugs, but there is a zero-tolerance policy, so one joint and a trip to the military police would have done it) or declare myself a conscientious objector. I decided, due to the strength of my feelings on the matter and the large amount of evidence to back up my position, to go through the official channels and opt for the latter choice. A choice which ultimately meant losing friends, my livelihood and for 7 months, my freedom.
It was a long drawn out process during which I was called a cancer by my commanding officer and grilled by a strangely aggressive chaplain. He denied me conscientious objector status on the grounds that, as an atheist, I couldn’t possibly have a moral opinion on the war. I also received death threats from people I had never met but who had heard rumours and half truths about what I was doing. All these people, however, refused to debate the real issue. The incredibly high levels of civilian casualties being completely at odds with our ‘hearts and minds’ strategy.
I felt this was an important debate that needed to take place, as the wars had been ongoing for nearly a decade with little progress and no foreseeable end. The data released was devoid of emotion and rhetoric. It had no party allegiance and it did not use civilians or soldiers as political footballs. It simply detailed the number and nature of civilian casualties in the military’s own words.
Without these leaks, the victims would have remained unrecognised outside of their local area. For this Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and everyone else involved in the release of these documents deserve our gratitude, not a prison cell. I lost my freedom for speaking out and was sentenced to 7 months in military prison before being dishonourably discharged. Assange and Manning, however, have faced treatment tantamount to torture since the release of those files. I will be eternally grateful for their bravery and sense of morality in unveiling the true human cost of our wars in the Middle East.
Michael Lyons served in the Royal Navy, he is now Chair of the VFP UK Policy Group.