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TGIF: Heroic

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Bradley Manning (who wishes to be known as Chelsea Manning) sure was naïve. During the sentencing phase of Manning’s court martial, Alexa O’Brien reports, a forensic psychiatrist said,

Well, Pfc Manning was under the impression that his leaked information was going to really change how the world views the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and future wars, actually. This was an attempt to crowdsource an analysis of the war, and it was his opinion that if … through crowdsourcing, enough analysis was done on these documents, which he felt to be very important, that it would lead to a greater good … that society as a whole would come to the conclusion that the war wasn’t worth it … that really no wars are worth it. [Emphasis added.]

Manning also expressed that hope in online chats three years ago when asked (by a government informant) what the goal of his leaks was:

hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms — if not, than [sic] we’re doomed – as a species — i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens — the reaction to the [Collateral Murder] video gave me immense hope; … i want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.

Despite the early media and public attention to that video, the ensuing reaction has been underwhelming. Has anything changed? Had Manning known the American people better, perhaps the then-22-year-old Army private first class (now a 25-year-old private, dishonorably discharged) wouldn’t be facing 35 years in prison. (She could be paroled in eight.) What was she thinking? Most Americans don’t care what “their” government does overseas. They barely care that the NSA spies on them.

Let’s face it: As long as the death and mayhem are over there — and never graphically portrayed in the news media — most Americans couldn’t care less how the U.S. military is employed. The deaths and oppression of others are unimportant. One reason Americans were so traumatized by 9/11 is that they are oblivious of how routinely the U.S. government commits or enables proportional atrocities in foreign, usually Muslim, countries. The chasm between the anger at 9/11 and the yawns that greet news of American war crimes says it all.

So, nice try, Chelsea Manning, but you had no idea whom you were dealing with. Americans aren’t about to be outraged, much less moved to action, by a mere video — “Collateral Murder” — showing “our boys” murdering Iraqi civilians and wounding children from the safety of an Apache helicopter. The idea that young men and women who “sacrifice to serve our country and keep us free” would commit atrocities (as they have in every war in which America has participated) never sinks in all the way, no matter how conclusive the evidence. At worst, it’s always just “a few bad apples” and nothing more. (Obviously, it’s no defense to say that others do it too.)

This romanticizing of the American GI is encouraged by conservatives and progressives alike (a very few honorable exceptions noted). Even when a commentator criticizes a particular war and the president responsible for it, you can be damn sure no disparaging word will be directed at “our  men and women in uniform” who carry out the lethal orders, and without whom presidents and generals would be reduced to harmless if annoying windbags.

And if Americans weren’t moved by “Collateral Murder,” they sure weren’t about to have their comfy lives disturbed by evidence (in 700,000 secret documents) of “lesser” offenses, such as covert drone warfare in Yemen, the enabling of torture, sundry acts of official criminality in Iraq and Afghanistan (as seen in “The War Logs”), and the rank cynicism spelled out in the leaked diplomatic cables. (For a rundown of what Manning’s disclosures via WikiLeaks told us, see Greg Mitchell’s “What Manning Revealed.”)

And yet, let’s not be too consequentialist about all this. Manning shouldn’t be judged merely by the effect (or lack thereof) that the disclosures have had on the U.S. government or American people. The virtues of justice and courage are not mere instrumental means to some other end. They are constitutive of a proper human life. Virtue is its own reward. Manning acted out of conscience, and we are better off because we have her heroism to contemplate.

How widely known is it that Manning witnessed and was forced to participate in war crimes? Glenn Greenwald wrote,

Like millions of people, Manning concluded that the war in Iraq, far from being a magnanimous endeavor to help the Iraqi people, was in fact an inhumane, monstrous act of aggression that indiscriminately killed huge numbers of innocent people; but unlike those millions of war critics, Manning decided to take action rather than remain passive.

Elsewhere, Greenwald noted that Manning

described how he had discovered that many of the Iraqis whom he was helping to detain were not insurgents at all, but simply critics of the Malaki [sic] government. But when Manning alerted his superiors to this fact, he was dismissed away, and realized then that using the formal whistleblowing channels would result in nothing other than his own punishment.

As Manning explained at the court martial,

I knew that if I continued to assist the Baghdad Federal Police in identifying the political opponents of Prime Minister al-Maliki, those people would be arrested and in the custody of the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police and very likely tortured and not seen again for a very long time – if ever. [Emphasis added.]

Instead of assisting the Special Unit of the Baghdad Federal Police, I decided to take the information and expose it to the [WikiLeaks organization], in the hope that before the upcoming 7 March 2010 election, they could generate some immediate press on the issue and prevent this unit of the Federal Police from continuing to crack down [on] political opponents of al-Maliki.

And as Steven Fishman wrote in a 2011 New York magazine profile of Manning,

An intel analyst sat at his work station and targeted the enemy, reducing a human being to a few salient points. Then he made a quick decision based on imperfect information: kill, capture, exploit, source. Any illusions Manning had about saving lives quickly vanished. At one point, he went to a superior with what he believed to be a mistake. The Iraqi Federal Police had rounded up innocent people, he said. Get back to work, he was told.

Fishman, who interviewed the gender counselor in whom Manning confided, wrote that after “a targeting mission gone bad in Basra … Manning felt that there was blood on his hands.” He could no longer participate in criminal activity, and reporting it up the chain of command was futile. “i was a *part* of something … i was actively involved in something that i was completely against,” Manning said in the online chat. Hence the resort to WikiLeaks.

Manning took to heart what, according to Fishman, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks once wrote: “Every time we witness an act that we feel to be unjust and do not act, we become a party to injustice.”

Commentators who routinely side with the government against whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing in foreign affairs have had a field day in attributing Manning’s actions to her personal issues. They seem to believe that no one could be moved by moral principle to do what she did. That says more about them than about Manning. As Greenwald writes, “The notion that these reactions to wholly unjustified, massive blood-spilling is psychologically warped is itself warped. The reactions described there are psychologically healthy; it’s far more psychologically disturbed not to have the reactions Manning had.”

Motive is really a secondary matter. Manning has ripped the mask off the American imperial war machine. Who really cares why? Even if Manning did it for money, we would still owe her a debt of gratitude for showing the American people — and the rest of the world — what the two-faced U.S. “leaders” are all about.

It’s too much to hope that Barack Obama will do the right thing and pardon Manning. Obama pronounced her guilty before the court martial. But we can hope that Manning’s term is as short and easy as possible. (Let’s not forget the cruel treatment she has already undergone at the hands of her captors.)

Thank you, Chelsea Manning. You are an inspiration.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.