Bradley Manning’s Guilt — and Ours

August 13, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Week on August 13, 2010.

Government officials and apologists for America’s wars are furious at Bradley Manning. The ruddy‐​cheeked Army private, now in solitary confinement in Quantico, Virigina, allegedly released classified army documents to WikiLeaks, the controversial whistleblower protection website. Manning appears to be the source of the video WikiLeaks released under the name “Collateral Murder,” which shows a U.S. Army helicopter crew killing more than a dozen civilians with a mounted machine gun. Manning is also suspected to be a source of WikiLeaks’ “Afghan War Diaries,” the massive trove of classified files detailing routine military operations in Afghanistan. The series of New York Times stories based on the files paints a grim picture of a mission hampered by endemic disorganization, double‐​dealing allies, and frequently deadly error.

Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, has called for Manning’s execution on grounds of treason. Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, the former Bush speech writer who rose to prominence through his aggressive defense of state‐​sanctioned torture, has called WikiLeaks a “criminal syndicate” — stopping just short of demanding the invasion of Iceland for the robust legal protections it affords organizations like WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that Assange might already have on his hands “the blood of some young soldier or that of an Afghan family.”

This idea — that Manning and WikiLeaks have imperiled Afghani informants or American troops — is now the leading charge against them. “We know for a fact that people will likely be killed because of this information being disclosed,” Rep. Rogers said.

Rogers did not provide evidence for his “fact,” but one fact beyond dispute in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is this: they have killed people by the thousands. In fact, the two wars combined have produced well more than 100,000 corpses. If putting people in harm’s way is a damning criticism of Manning, then what are we to make of those who have cheered on, voted for, and managed America’s wars? Is all this killing justified or not? Is there a legitimate aim that will somehow redeem all this death? These questions are the backdrop against which we judge the deeds of Bradley Manning and the efforts of WikiLeaks.

The bloody events portrayed in the WikiLeaks’ “Collateral Murder” video seem gratuitously malign. It is no consolation to know that the victims were riddled with bullets in accordance with military protocol. (Again, for what?) Consequently, it takes no great empathy to understand Manning’s desire to expose such savage, pointless destruction of human life, or his desire to distance himself from it.

“I don’t believe in good guys versus bad guys anymore,” Private Manning confessed in an instant message chat with Adrian Lamo, the ex‐​hacker who turned him in. “I mean, we’re better in some respects,” he clarified. “[W]e’re much more subtle… use a lot more words and legal techniques to legitimize everything. It’s better than disappearing in the middle of the night. But just because something is more subtle, doesn’t make it right.”

Manning’s disillusionment may strike unfaltering patriots as the germ of his betrayal. But lazy love of country blinds us to the possibility of our country’s wrongdoing. What’s more, it blinds us to the possibility that Manning’s softening of partiality, his recoil from slaughter, is the morally right response to what he had seen. It is hard to sense our own complicity in injustice, especially when the victims of injustice appear remote. But Manning saw that he was an adjunct to injustice and senseless death, and was moved to risk his freedom, possibly his life, to do something about it. After telling the duplicitous Lamo that he had forwarded 260,000 State Department cables to WikiLeaks, Manning explained his aim: “Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms,” he wrote. “[I] want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” Though he has soured on the state, Manning evidently remains an idealist animated by the possibly naïve hope that a democratic public that has seen what he has seen will feel moved, as he was moved, to do something about it.

Glenn Greenwald argues that WikiLeaks has generated so much animosity because “they breached the Absolute Wall of Secrecy behind which our Government, and its private National Security and Surveillance State partners, operate.”

This is a big part of the story, but not the only part. Private Manning and WikiLeaks have also created the possibility that millions of Americans will now come face to face with the same ugly truths that led Manning to conclude that he had obligations to humanity weightier than an oath to the state. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left Americans with blood on our hands, and on our wallets — a truth most of us prefer to avoid. Unfiltered facts and uncensored video about what has been done on our behalf, on our dime, are “dangerous” precisely because they lead to mortifying moral clarity when it is face‐​saving obfuscation that we crave. Secrets sold by a grasping turncoat would not threaten America’s wars. It is Manning’s idealistic exercise of conscience, and the faint possibility that we are as good as he thinks we are, that has agitated the lords of war.

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