So I was actually pleased when one reader, a friend and former student, took issue with me yesterday over a post to the Facebook page. I had linked this article on the website of an organization called Courage to Resist. The piece concerns Pvt. Bradley Manning, who is apparently now being held more or less in isolation, charged with having turned over to WikiLeaks the now-notorious video subsequently titled “Collateral Murder.” My commentary on the video itself can be found here.
Anyway, this particular reader wrote, reasonably enough, that “When you sign with the military; you agree to the uniform code. When you sign to that, you have to align with all military actions. Justified or not…. that kind of behavior will infect the code.” He also took issue (as do I) with Courage to Resist’s slogan, “Support the troops who refuse to fight.” It is a little disingenuous to voluntarily join the armed forces and then come to a crisis of conscience over the fact that armies kill people. On the other hand, to suggest that many enlistees are provided with misleading if not outright fabricated information about what their military lives and duties will be (nothing in writing, of course) is merely to acknowledge reality. We could go around and around on this for days, and it’s really just a side issue. So let’s move on.
Be it noted, then, that all I did was post the link and note Pvt. Manning’s arrest, his apparent inability to access civilian counsel, and the (as far as I’m concerned) indisputable fact that the center-piece crime with which he is charged is an act of whistle-blowing. I made then, and make now, no determination of whether Pvt. Manning’s alleged actions were—or ought to be—legal or even ethical. Importantly, however, I do insist that “legal” and “ethical” are separate categories; in cases like this one, especially, it is possible to be the latter without being the former.
Many readers of this blog will know that this spring I taught a topics course on the American theatre and the Vietnam War. One of the texts we used was The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Daniel Berrigan’s adaptation of actual court transcripts in one of the most seminal anti-war protests of the Vietnam era. The eponymous nine protesters destroyed several boxes of draft records with homemade napalm, then stood in a circle, singing, calmly waiting for the police to arrive. They offered nothing like a traditional defense in court, merely pointing out the potential conflicts of interest of an obviously stacked jury and seizing every opportunity to make the case about the war instead of about their own actions. They were convicted, of course—there could be no doubt about their guilt in legal terms—but they became heroes to millions of people in the process.
Does Pvt. Manning belong in that same category? Frankly, it’s very hard to say. There are far more questions than answers. If the reporting of the Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima is to be believed, Pvt. Manning was, and probably still is, a very messed-up young man. Nakashima's lead paragraph describes a 22-year-old soldier who “had just gone through a breakup. He had been demoted a rank in the Army after striking a fellow soldier. He felt he had no future, and yet he thought that by sharing classified information about his government's foreign policy, he might ‘actually change something.’” If that’s an accurate description, his actions were more desperate than heroic, more Scooter Libby outing Valerie Plame than Daniel Ellsberg (to whom some have compared Manning) releasing the Pentagon Papers.
But there is much in this story that just doesn’t make sense, at least yet. The best reporting I’ve seen on the issue is the lengthy and detailed essay by Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com. Greenwald’s analysis is filtered through a reliably progressive lens, to be sure, but he’s clearly done the work: his documentation is, by contemporary journalistic standards, a thing to behold.
What seems clear is that Pvt. Manning admitted to (“took credit for”? “claimed responsibility for”?) not only the release of the 2007 video, but of another similar video from Afghanistan and of some 260,000 diplomatic cables. The exact nature of the charges against him is not entirely clear, at least to me, but surely they’re linked to some broadly-construed concept of “national security,” a descriptor so flexible in application that it means anything from “the continued existence of the republic is legitimately at risk” to “this has the potential to be mildly embarrassing to someone with some clout.” See, for example, the brouhaha over the release of information regarding warrantless wiretaps in the Bush administration: to hear the Dick Cheneys of the world tell it, the threat to the American citizenry wasn’t that our government was eavesdropping on our private conversations without as much as probable cause, it was that we knew they were doing it.
Greenwald identifies a number of, shall we say, anomalies in the story as presented to us:
Why would a 22-year-old Private in Iraq have unfettered access to 250,000 pages of diplomatic cables so sensitive that they “could do serious damage to national security?” Why would he contact a total stranger, whom he randomly found from a Twitter search, in order to “quickly” confess to acts that he knew could send him to prison for a very long time, perhaps his whole life? And why would he choose to confess over the Internet, in an unsecured, international AOL IM chat, given the obvious ease with which that could be preserved, intercepted or otherwise surveilled? These are the actions of someone either unbelievably reckless or actually eager to be caught.
In fact, the first question that comes to my mind isn’t why Manning did this, but if he did. Perhaps it is plausible that he had access to the materials he describes. Perhaps he really did find a somewhat less than reputable pseudo-journalist via Twitter and offer him his confession—in a fit of remorse? or of braggadocio? Perhaps Adrian Lamo, the “journalist” in question, really didn’t offer him confidentiality and really did fear for the safety of American citizens when he went scurrying off to nark on Pvt. Manning. But it strikes me as equally plausible that Manning had nothing to do with the release of the video(s), that the cables were never released at all, and that the claims of responsibility are more a cry for help than either a baring of the soul or an assertion of existential heroism. Voluntary false confessions are a fact of judicial life, and while I’m not a psychologist, it strikes me that Manning’s mental and emotional profile would bear considerable resemblance to those of people who do falsely confess.
Given the Army’s secrecy, we’re unlikely to find out much more about this case. All of which means that we don’t know if Pvt. Manning in fact did what he claims to have done, and, if he did, what his motives were either in the commission or in the confession. With so many facts unresolved, our own prejudices and predilections will inevitably fill the void. Pvt. Manning will therefore likely be, in different people’s eyes, a hero, a traitor, a victim, or just a pitiable young man, possibly forever. Who knows? Maybe one of those descriptions might even be accurate.