Assange exposed war crimes the American Civil War heroes would not have dreamt of in a million years.

July 3 is the 158th anniversary of General Robert E Lee’s failed charge at Gettysburg – one of the most violent modern war scenes. But today it’s worse.

The Confederate loss at Gettysburg that day changed the tide of the Civil War in favour of the Union. The Union Army cut down approximately half the 15,000 Confederate soldiers who charged on that fateful day.  Fifteen Confederate divisional commanders were included in these casualties.  The Union casualties, by comparison,  were 1,500 soldiers on the day.

Today’s wars, however, do not only include extensive war casualties, but they include unwarranted attacks on civilians.  This was clear from the evidence of violence Wikileaks provided in the Collateral Murder video, violence which Civil War combatants would not have dreamt of in a million years.  Yes, there were times in those days when a militia physically hurt civilians when it invaded a town that an opposing army held but it wasn’t commonplace in the Civil War.

There would be people who would argue the civil war was not a modern war. The historian James Barbary’s book Puritans and Cavaliers showed how the Royalist Refugees fled from Cromwell’s dictatorship to Virginia and how the Puritans settled in Pennsylvania, thus the American Civil War was seen by some as an extension of the English Civil War. But nothing could have put the Civil War more on the radar of modern wars than the use of the first iron-clad ships – the vessels, the Monitor and the Merrimack. Mr Barbary did not write his book to editorialise on whether the American Civil War was a modern conflict, but one should praise his book.

If one was to put the Civil War in a modern context, one could draw parallels to the English and German soldiers, who shook hands and exchanged gifts on Christmas Day in World War 1. Indeed there was a scene in the film Gods and Generals, set on Christmas Day 1861 on the Rappahannock River in Eastern Virginia.  It showed the stereotypical Civil War fighters, the Union Army soldier Billy Yank and the Confederate Soldier Johnny Reb, when they met on a dry point in the middle of the river. “Billy Yank” played a Christmas Carol on his violin and the two exchanged coffee and tobacco. It’s interesting to compare these niceties of war with another “modern war” – the 2001-2021 forever war, where such niceties do not exist.

The setting for the pleasant Christmas meeting: the Rappahannock, was not any picnic though, given that it was a major point of interest in Civil War conflicts, such as the Battle of Fredericksburg, the Battle of Rappahannock Station and General Grant’s frightening wilderness campaign and yet hostilities were put aside for a fleeting moment to mark the occasion of good will to all people.

The Wilderness Campaign was frightening, not so much because of its approximately 4,000 deaths, but because of its 20,000 wounded and a further approximation of 5,000 somehow missing in action – but the Civil War was not waged on civilians whom the invading soldiers found wandering around, as happened in wars Wikileaks reported on, approximately 150 years later.

There is a very specific reasons why this did not happen in the Civil War.  It’s called the Lieber Code, President Abraham Lincoln’s General Order 100 of April 24, 1863. It contained the Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field – the first modern codification of the laws of war. The jurist, political philosopher, international lawyer and Cambridge and Columbia College  Professor Francis (Franz) Lieber from Germany, wrote the Code. Professor Lieber’s Prussian hosts hurled him in jail, because, as a liberal nationalist, he opposed the prevailing political system of his country at that time.  Professor Lieber was a member of a student association, which opposed the Prussian Monarchy. 

The Professor and his code considered:

  • Whether to treat captured Confederate soldiers as traitors subject to the death penalty or as prisoners of war,
  • The distinction between combatants and civilians,
  • Retaliation,
  • Permissible methods and means of warfare,
  • The fact that military necessity did not include any act of hostility which made the return to peace unnecessarily difficult.
  • The promotion of a law of nations, which did not favour people of one colour over another. 

In the context of a “law of nations,” the idea of US forces engaged in continual attacks on other countries with people of different races in the 21st Century context is horrific, as is destruction of property in enemy territory.  The Code required invading armies to treat populations in occupied areas, ethically.

Under the Code, one was to use sufficient military power to end a war and not more than this but the Bush-era wars have gone on for two decades and one wonders whether they intend to end these wars or if the United States Military Industrial Complex is making too much money for an end to be considered.

The USA wants to charge Julian Assange under the 1917 Espionage Act – a wartime document. If one therefore considered Julian Assange a prisoner of war, then under the Lieber Code:

… A prisoner of war is subject to no punishment for being a public enemy, nor is any revenge wreaked upon him by the intentional infliction of any suffering, or disgrace, by cruel punishment, want of food, by mutilation, death or any other barbarity… Prisoners of war shall be… treated with humanity… military necessity does not admit of cruelty — that is, the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge.

The Code did not permit “… torture… [and expressly forbade anyone to] kill prisoners of war, except… when the survival of the unit which held these prisoners was threatened.” It would have been unlikely that President Lincoln would have treated Mr Assange in the same way as Presidents Trump and Biden have done.

The excellent author David Herbert Donald’s biography Lincoln depicted the life and times of Abraham Lincoln.  I want to praise Professor Donald’s book.  He told two amazing stories about the treatment of publishers throughout Abraham Lincoln’s life.  Professor Donald related how angry residents of Alton, Illinois threw two printing presses, which the abolitionist Reverend Elijah P Lovejoy owned, into the river, burnt down Mr Lovejoy’s warehouse and shot him. The locals were offended because they traded with people in the south and had kinship there.

Professor Donald’s second such story set out how President Lincoln’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the arrest of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle journalists Joseph Howard and Francis A Mallison and told the Army to take possession of their newspaper. The over-zealous journalists published, in the Journal of Commerce and New York World, news of President Lincoln’s planned draft of 400,000 men, to boost numbers after the heavy losses in General Grant’s “Wilderness campaign.” The President indeed planned to conscript 300,000 men, but did not give the order for it to happen because the leaked report about further conscription caused speculation, which increased the price of gold by 10 per cent. The reporters wanted to personally profit from the rise.

Despite the Lincoln administration’s order to arrest them, the troubled President did not agree with the dumping of printing presses into the river,  a la Reverend Lovejoy’s predicament, and publicly stated as much. In more recent days, successive Trump and Biden administrations have been happy to throw Julian Assange’s printing press in the river and leave it there, and Mr Howard and Mr Mallison got approximately 3-6 months jail, in Fort Lafayette. Most people went home after the Civil War – soldiers and war prisoners alike.

The Bush era wars essentially started when 9/11 happened and they’re still raging 20 years later. What’s this bunk about how you want Julian Assange incarcerated for 175 years when Howard and Mallison got a few months and the Civil War did not go any longer than four years? One can only wonder if 158 years after Gettysburg,  there is now an autocratic state in the USA. This was not what the soldiers of the Civil War and the American War of Independence wanted.

Wikileaks did what journalists had done since the days of Howard and Mallison. They leaked government information, although Mr Howard and Mr Mallison were treated like naughty school boys and got a slap on the wrist. The former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said journalists often obtained, disclosed, solicited  and published secret information. “Ultimate responsibility to keep sensitive information secure rests with the government. The United States Government demonstrably failed to effectively secure… classified [Iraq and Afghanistan] documents…,” Mr Rudd said.

To publish government information is the bread and butter of journalism and yet our governments decide to throw Julian Assange’s printing presses into the river and lock him up forever, while these governments run their death-infected military campaigns with tax-payers’ money and shoot-up the local community in whichever towns they illegally invade.

Julian Assange is an international hero   ̶   Joseph with the assistance of the Julian Assange Sydney Town Hall Gathering

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