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.