Just Following Orders: Bradley Manning and Us

June 3, 2013

Three years after his arrest, Bradley Manning faces a life sentence for “aiding the enemy,” but artist Molly Crabapple argues the soldier only betrayed his institution out of loyalty to humanity.

Bradley Manning

Molly Crabapple, Bradley Manning, 2013.

America loves its soldiers. They are heroes. They risk everything to protect our freedom. If they are killed, they have made the ultimate sacrifice.

In early 2010, when a soldier named Bradley Manning handed hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and Army reports over to WikiLeaks, he also risked everything to protect our freedom. But the American government is trying him for treason. And the American people, for the most part, don’t care.

It was the largest release of classified information in U.S. history. The documents revealed secret drone strikes, abusive conditions in Guantanamo and endemic corruption. They are credited in part for sparking the Arab Spring.

“You saw incredible things, awful things . . . things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington D.C. . . . what would you do?” Manning asked a former hacker, Adrian Lamo, shortly after passing the information to WikiLeaks.

In Manning, a soldier’s loyalty collided with the anti-authoritarian ethos of a hacker.

Manning is a 25-year old gay kid from Oklahoma, ferociously smart, computer-addicted and psychologically fraught. He probably should never have been sent to war. During basic training, he was injured, and tormented as a “runt” and a “faggot.” His superiors wrote that he could be “a risk to himself and possibly others.” But the U.S. Army desperately needed intelligence analysts with computer skills, so in October 2009, at the age of 21, Manning was shipped to Iraq.

As an analyst, Manning had access to massive caches of information, from diplomatic cables to video footage of military operations. In a forward operating base east of Baghdad, he scrutinized documents while surrounded by televisions live-streaming destruction. He saw Iraqis arrested for distributing “terrorist literature,” when they were really circulating critiques of their government’s financial corruption. He told his superior officer, who shrugged. “Get back to work.”

There is an American myth that we do not “just follow orders.” Most people do. Faced with innocent people locked in cages, Manning decided not to.

Manning downloaded cables, documents and videos that, in many cases, revealed brutal acts executed by the U.S. military, and then passed them on to WikiLeaks. The first thing WikiLeaks released was helicopter cam footage it titled “Collateral Murder.” It shows U.S. pilots gunning down two Reuters employees, then killing an Iraqi Good Samaritan, who, with his children, had stopped to help the wounded. The pilots seem cheerful and trigger-happy. They joke about the sounds a tank makes rolling over a corpse.

Manning confessed his leak to Adrian Lamo after reading about the ex-hacker in Wired. Lamo, pallid and twitchy, is a Judas straight out of Central Casting. He pumped Manning for information, claiming that their communications were protected because Lamo was both a journalist and a priest. Then, he turned Manning over to the FBI.

Manning is often called a traitor. But whom did he betray?

Travon Boykins, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Infantry, told me, “Soldiers are clannish, for good and ill. You are a part of the circle until you are out of the circle. It keeps us alive. You are expected to watch each other, protect each other. The mission is first. The country and Constitution are grand too. But most guys, if asked which is the most important, they would say the men. That’s the dude you drank with, the dude who is on mission with you, the guy you will kill for and die for. At the end of the day, Manning broke our trust. If you commit an act of betrayal, how can I be sure you have my back? Will you kill for me? Will you die for me?”

Like any whistleblower, Manning may have betrayed his institution, but he did so out of loyalty to humanity.

Karl Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Rhodes scholar, said during an interview with Bill Moyers, “The feeling [among soldiers] is that it’s we, not me. You’re willing to sacrifice me, both as a physical body, and as an individual, to make sure the we of the unit gets through this. We can’t be killed. I can be killed.”

Loyalty is life and death for soldiers. But like courage, it’s a morally neutral virtue. Its morality depends on how you view the cause it serves. Like any whistleblower, Manning may have betrayed his institution, but he did so out of loyalty to humanity.

If we view the war in Iraq as a murderous failure, entered into with lies and kept going by a refusal to admit our wrongs, the soldiers’ fidelity to their mission looks different. The loyal soldiers become gears in a terrible machine beyond their control. They carve out spaces of humanity and solidarity for each other, even as the machine leaves countries covered in blood.

In Manning, a soldier’s loyalty collided with the anti-authoritarian ethos of a hacker. Manning refused to be a gear.

The government needs hackers. But while hackers are often hired by the government, they are seldom of the government. Their values are foreign. Like the Mamluk soldier-slaves who would one day take Egypt from their masters, hackers are threatening precisely because they are already inside the walls of power. They have to be kept in line.

Manning’s case is just one of dozens where hackers or whistleblowers with access to critical information networks are threatened with decades in prison. From Aaron Swartz to Jeremy Hammond, those who use computers to subvert the actions of the powerful are seen as more dangerous than rapists and murderers.

Manning has spent three years in jail just awaiting trial—longer than the sentences given to most of the torturers at Abu Ghraib.

A member of the armed forces, speaking to me on the condition of anonymity, said, “The military operates at the behest of our civilian masters. Those masters have the power to change law and policy. Citizens have the power to call their representatives to account through the political process. The military must NEVER set policy or interpret policy. That is how you get military juntas. In order for the United States to function as a free and open society, the military MUST carry out policy just like a machine would. This is what Bradley Manning failed to understand.”

I asked him what Manning should have done. He told me that Manning should have brought his complaints up the chain of command. If that hadn’t worked, he should have applied to leave the military, and then submitted freedom of information requests. The process requires an essential faith in the system.

Manning was arrested in May 2010 and held in solitary confinement for the next nine months. Guards stripped him naked each night, took his glasses, woke him every hour and allowed him twenty minutes a day to walk shackled in figure-eights. Solitary breaks minds. Shane Bauer, a hiker who spent 26 months in solitary confinement in Iran, wrote, “I needed human contact so badly that I woke every morning hoping to be interrogated… I once yearned to be sat down in a padded, soundproof room, blindfolded, and questioned, just so I could talk to somebody.” Thanks to international pressure, Manning was finally transferred to a normal cell in April 2011. But he has spent three years in jail just awaiting trial—longer than the sentences given to most of the torturers at Abu Ghraib.

Manning’s trial begins today. In a pre-trial hearing in January, he pled guilty to “misusing classified material,” and explained his motivations for leaking the information. But he denied the capital charge of “aiding the enemy,” for which he faces the possibility of life in prison.

Manning is accused of aiding the enemy because he posted the information to the internet, where Al Qaeda could read it. That the information went to WikiLeaks was irrelevant. The prosecution said Manning would be just as guilty if he had leaked it to the New York Times. You might start thinking that the enemy is the internet itself. Or, by extension, that the enemy is us.

Manning’s pre-trial hearings have mostly been ignored by the media. The Times only started sending reporters after an opinion piece by its own public editor shamed them for their absence. CNN’s Anderson Cooper has never visited Fort Meade. Alexa O’Brien, an independent journalist who for the past two and a half years has provided the only public transcript of the hearings, said: “The mainstream media doesn’t have much respect for Bradley Manning. There’s a totem pole of influence. Manning isn’t someone they’re trying to win something from.” O’Brien was threatened with arrest for being “disruptive” in the course of covering the hearings.

Alexa O'Brien

Molly Crabapple, Alexa O’Brien, 2013.

“I believe that if the general public … had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate as to the role of the military and foreign policy in general,” Manning testified in court. We now have access to that information, but it hasn’t sparked a widespread debate.

America’s indifference to Manning shows how morally lazy we have become. Manning gave his freedom to reveal the truth about our wars. We didn’t want to be bothered.

We look away from Manning’s leaks for the same reason we have always looked away from veterans. We don’t want to see the violence that underpins America. We don’t want to see the teenager home from war with a colostomy bag and a scrambled brain. We don’t want to see Bradley Manning. So we’ll let him spend the rest of his life in a hole, until all but a few forget what he did to get there.

“I guess I’m too idealistic,” Manning typed to Lamo, days before he was arrested. “I want people to see the truth, because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public. I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.”

Maybe the greatest lie that Manning exposed won’t have been about what the United States was really up to in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will be the lie we told ourselves—the lie that we cared about the truth.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published in The Guardian.


18 Responses to “Just Following Orders: Bradley Manning and Us”

  1. Thy Peace says:

    Amen. Thank you for speaking the truth.

  2. Me, Myself and I says:

    Time the countries that espouse freedom and values lived up to it and stopped hiding the true facts they are just as culpable as all those they accuse.

  3. Félix Marqués says:

    What a beautiful article.

  4. Mauricio says:

    I am crying, actually crying, for the first time in five years. I thought they would be tears of relief, because I could finally let go again. But they aren’t. Tears worth the name come from either joy or sadness. These are the latter.

    I shed tears both for Bradley Manning, this brave, heroic man, and for ourselves, these weak, pathetic humans. He is doomed because he trusted us. We are doomed because we trusted ourselves and our “age of information”. Manning fought to spread information. We looked the other way. Forced ourselves to ignore some of the most important facts of the century.

    I didn’t know about Bradley Manning until this day. Maybe because I’m not American, but I highly doubt that’s the main problem. The main problem is myself. Ourselves.

    I’m sorry, Manning. You deserve much better than this. But I don’t know how to give more. I don’t think many of us do.

  5. Manning is a hero and a patriot in my book. We live in an age where the civil liberties our forefathers fought so hard for are being eroded by the day. Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Assembly are mere ghostly images of their original intent. We’ve woken up to an Orwellian Society of Fear where anyone is at the mercy of being labeled a terrorist for standing up for rights we took for granted just over a decade ago. Read about how we’re waging war against ourselves at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/living-in-society-of-fear-ten-years.html

  6. Don Bartlett says:

    We lie in an age where the rich and famous can beat anything. It does not matter if they are liberal or conservative. Just look at this one case http://zautos.com/bobby-brown-serves-nine-hours-in-jail-for-third-dui/ an you will see exactly how this system works

  7. Alan Kurtz says:

    “Manning is often called a traitor,” writes Molly Crabapple. “But whom did he betray?”

    She immediately answers her own question by quoting 1st Lt. Travon Boykins, who says among other things, “At the end of the day, Manning broke our trust. If you commit an act of betrayal, how can I be sure you have my back? Will you kill for me? Will you die for me?”

    I’ve never considered Manning a traitor, but Lt. Boykins’ eloquence gives me pause. If PFC Manning betrayed his fellow soldiers, maybe “traitor” is an apt description after all.

  8. rharwell says:

    The argument that Manning should have taken his case up the chain of command didn’t work for Manning, he was ordered to keep working and in effect, shutup. Had he attempted to go over the head of his CO, that would have been insubordination. His CO silenced him. Ask to leave the military? He did that and was refused. He asked not to be deployed, he was anyway. Command knew he had serious personality issues but they ignored them all and deployed him. Whoever this person was who made that statement knows it is all but impossible to be discharged except when they want you gone. Use FOIA? Get real. He would never be given access to any of that as it would immediately go under the cloak of National Security. The UCMJ is very clear when it comes to war crimes, illegal orders, etc. He did what he was supposed to do when command failed him. He was harassed and that didn’t stop. He was harangued for his sexuality and that was not stopped. He reported war crimes and was told to piss off. I agree with the article. He turned his back on the system, on his Brothers in Arms, and they, in turn, threw him under the bus. He is being prosecuted, persecuted and yet no one who has been guilty of any war crime is doing time, or been charged. It is very clear to me that he is a true patriot. It is also very clear to me Obama and his psychopaths are determined to put him away for a very long time. So who is the traitor here? It sure as hell isn’t the one in the docks, wearing handcuffs and chains. Oh, and by the way, I served proudly in the USN, ’66-’75, left as an E-6 so I understand the military state of mind very well. Excellent article.

    • Alan Kurtz says:

      rharwell, your understanding of the facts of this case, as recounted in your first seven sentences, is entirely wrong. Here’s an excerpt from Judge Lind’s colloquy with PFC Manning on Feb. 28, 2013, when he pled guilty to 10 of 22 specifications against him.

      THE COURT: “Now kind of what you are saying is you had your own personal noble motive in doing what you did. And you also testified that you believed this conduct is service discrediting and prejudicial to good order and discipline. How can that co-exist?”

      PFC MANNING: “Your Honor, regardless of my opinion or my assessment of the documents, it’s beyond my pay-grade. It’s not my authority to make these decisions. Again, there are channels that you are supposed to go through. And I didn’t even look at the possible channels of having this information released properly. That’s not how we do business.”

      He never asked to leave the military. To the contrary, during his prepared statement that he read aloud in court on Feb. 28, Manning recalled that during basic training, “Due to medical issues, I was placed on a hold status. A physical examination indicated that I sustained injuries to my right soldier and left foot. Due to those injuries I was unable to continue basic. During medical hold, I was informed that I may be out processed from the Army. However, I resisted being chaptered out because I felt I could overcome my medical issues and continue to serve.”

      He never asked not to be deployed overseas.

      And most importantly, he did not exercise his rights under the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, preferring instead to make a big media splash by passing 750,000 classified documents to WikiLeaks. It was instant gratification, and he’s now paying the price.

      But to his credit, he also stated on Feb. 28, “The decisions that I made to send documents and information to WikiLeaks were my own decisions, and I take full responsibility for my actions.”

      Bradley Manning has pled guilty and courageously accepted full responsibility. Why can’t his supporters come to grips with that?

  9. leonardo_dicraprio says:

    My sympathies are with Bradley Manning, but I have a hard time concluding that what he did is nearly as unambiguously moral as Ms. Crabapple portrays it to be, and I think discussions of the case deserve more acknowledgement of the complexity of the morality involved. One might live by the credo that information wants to be free, but there are innumerable instances where privacy and secrecy protect individuals. We can debate whether the release of private diplomatic cables that personally denigrate individuals is good or bad for constructive international relations and peace building, but it is more difficult to argue that publishing the names of Iraqis working with Americans is in any way a public good. Whether Manning is morally responsible for the release of those names or whether it is WikiLeaks’ responsibility can be debated, but it should not be dismissed. If Manning had been selective in what he downloaded and/or released–in true whistleblower style, as in the release of photos from Abu Ghraib–I would have less ambivalence about whether I felt he was unjustly persecuted. Though I would not be surprised were the U.S. to prosecute him in such a situation, I suspect the public would likely be less ambivalent about his fate. Again, my sympathies are with Bradley Manning. But I think there was more than a little naivete in his decision to download and pass on so many volumes of information, and in his belief that that decision would be free of unintended consequences for others, or the loss of his own freedom. For me, and I expect for most Americans paying any attention, it’s not so easy to conclude that Manning’s actions were unambiguously moral, though I believe his intentions were.

    (Apologies for the screen-name: from a very different site)

  10. M. K. Hajdin says:

    We can’t handle the truth.

  11. Pretty Hips McGee says:

    “America’s indifference to Manning shows how morally lazy we have become. Manning gave his freedom to reveal the truth about our wars. We didn’t want to be bothered”
    You seem very comfortable assigning reasons why the American public isn’t as interested in this story as you think they should. From my perspective Americans know that an American serviceman took 250,000 classified cables and threw them to the internet winds which is a crime. He will be found guilty and the only story will be what the punishment will be.
    Even that won’t be much of a story.

  12. Nicola Karesh says:

    Makes my heart ache.

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