Two points about Bradley Manning’s mitigation plea, which, the Guardian tells us, “will disappoint Manning’s thousands of supporters around the world, who believe he undertook a courageous act of whistleblowing because his conscience demanded it.”
First point: as Arthur Silber has noted, the importance of these ‘whistleblower’ cases has nothing to do with the personalities involved. Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden: it doesn’t matter what kind of people they are, if you think they are ‘heroes’ or ‘bad people,’ if you’d ‘like to have a beer with them’ or would run a mile if you saw them coming. What matters is what they have done; what matters are the fragments of truth they have made available. If the sexual charges against Assange turned out to be true, it would have no bearing whatsoever on the importance of what Wikileaks has accomplished, the fissures it has made in the bristling walls of deceit that our brutal, stupid and venal elites around the world have erected to hide their misdeeds. The same goes for Snowden, Manning, or anyone else whose actions have made similar fissures.
It’s always a great temptation to succumb to the cult of celebrity, of course, to live vicariously through the snippets we happen to read here and there about some famous person, to see them as “heroes” who live out the courage or accomplishments or glamor that we can only dream of, and so on. And that’s fine for a flip-through of People magazine in the check-out line. But this is serious business. The actions of these whistleblowers involve taking on the power of corrupt and murderous state structures that can and will destroy individual lives and entire nations — structures that are wildly out of control and are devouring the very substance of human society. Actions that put a spoke of truth in the wheels of this monstrous machine are of incalculable importance. The ‘character’ of those who put in the spokes is of vastly minor importance.
Second point: I invite any critic of Bradley Manning’s mitigation plea to stand in his shoes for two seconds and show us how ‘tough’ they would be. Manning is facing a lifetime of penal servitude in a system that has already tortured him, battered him, humiliated him, abused him. He is facing the prospect of spending decades — decades — in a system run by people who demonstrably despise him. He will be housed with people — and more importantly, guarded by people — who hate ‘traitors’ and ‘queers’ and ‘weirdos’ and ‘sissies’ with a violent, virulent hatred. This is what he faces: years and years and years of it. What are you facing? If I were Bradley Manning and facing a life like that, I’m sure I’d proclaim my ‘repentance’ too. I’d apologize, I’d weep, I’d throw myself on the mercy of the court, if it meant I had the chance to cut some time from my sentence in hell. Does anyone really believe, even for a moment, that a blazing statement of political principle would have somehow moved the judge – the same judge who has made a relentless series of rulings cramping Manning’s defense at every turn, and ensuring that the trial was a ludicrous, sinister sham which never addressed – and was designed not to address – the substance of Manning’s action and the crimes that he revealed? What good, then, would be an empty effusion whose only purpose would be to make all of us sitting safely behind our keyboards feel all wiggly for a moment or two?
In his statement, Manning didn’t name any names, sell anyone out, implicate anyone else. He tried to mitigate his own further torture — but he didn’t betray anyone. A plea for mercy, an apology — however sincere or feigned — is an entirely different thing from betrayal. I’m sure that at almost any point in his long, torturous captivity, Manning could have turned ‘state’s evidence’ against Julian Assange and cut the sweetest of deals, perhaps even get a pardon or total immunity. He didn’t do that. He took the entire burden on himself, went through the entire ordeal by himself — and now he is standing there, by himself, waiting to feel the full draconian force of military law. No one else is there but him. No one else is at risk but him.
As far as I’m concerned, he can say whatever he has to say in that situation to try to mitigate the horror that is about to descend upon him. If the apologies and regrets and explanations that he is offering the court “disappoint” you, then that’s just too bad. Again I say: go stand in his shoes, face what he’s facing, and see what you’d do. Manning brought these truths to light; he has endured torture and captivity without betraying another living soul. If that’s not ‘heroic’ enough for some people, if he is now to be abandoned because he’s “let us down” — like a pop star who’s put out a bad record after a string of hits — then their “dissent” must be shallow indeed.
The “disappointment” also bespeaks an historical ignorance of what life is really like in brutal systems bent on crushing all effective opposition to the ruling elite. Anna Akhmatova — who displayed more moral courage in her lifetime than a whole stadium full of keyboard ‘dissidents’ — submitted to the humiliation of writing odes to Stalin in an attempt to save her son from the ravages of the Gulag. Osip Mandelshtam — another bold truth-teller, an ardent upholder of the “supreme value of a single human life” (Silber again) against the implacable, inhuman brutality of the state — was forced to do likewise, in an attempt, like Manning, to mitigate a punishment he knew he could not survive. And like Manning, they did this without betraying anyone else, taking the pain and ignominy upon themselves alone. Yet the work of both helped give hope and sustenance and meaning to the lives of multitudes of people, over many decades.
Reality in such systems — systems that have openly demonstrated their willingness to torture people, lock them up for years without trial or kill them outright at the arbitrary order of the leader and his minions — is not a TV show, not a movie with well-marked ‘character arcs’ ending in triumph for the bruised but unbowed hero. It’s a dirty, ugly, degrading business, an uneven fight, pitting unarmed truth against vast, implacable, dehumanizing forces of violent domination. It is a war with many bitter defeats, both outwardly and in the souls of those caught up in it. It involves loss, destruction, humiliation, torment, ruin and doubt. There are no “heroes” in it, only human beings: some of them fighting to hang on to their humanity as best they can — and others who have surrendered their humanity to the forces of domination.
Bradley Manning doesn’t have to be a “hero.” He doesn’t have to make a stirring speech to give people a vicarious thrill for a moment before they click over to check their Facebook page or pop in another box set. He has shown clearly that he stands on the side of humanity — and now he is paying the price for it. The very fact of his case has revealed the true nature of the system arrayed against him, and against us.
If you can do better, go do it.
UPDATE: Arthur Silber has much more to say about Manning’s plight and its broader implications in a powerful new essay that, as so often, lifts the analysis of the situation to new levels of insight. You should go there and read the piece in full; mere excerpts would do it, and you, a disservice.
However, I do want to quote one passage from Silber’s piece which helps clarify something I wrote in my post above. When taking issue with those who expressed their ‘disappointment’ in Manning for his mitigation plea, for not being the ‘hero’ they craved, I noted that despite all of the torture he had endured — much of it focused on breaking him and getting to denounce others, specifically Julian Assange — he did not do so. I noted that he faced all the risks of his action, and all the unjust punishment he has received for it, alone, protecting others, taking the burden solely on himself. This, it seemed to me, matched even the most simplistic, romanticized and juvenile notion of a ‘hero’ that anyone can have. And as I was addressing people who seemed to be thinking in those terms, I used this fact to point that even by their own occluded lights, Manning could be regarded as a hero (if heroes you must have), and therefore their pique was childish, unworthy and wrong.
However, Silber goes further and makes a point about the situation that I fully share: that even if Manning had “rolled,” the onus of that act — and any consequences that followed from it — would fall entirely on those who had tortured him and put him in that brutal, inhuman position. Silber makes a searing comparison to impossible situation faced by the main character in Sophie’s Choice, who was forced by the Nazi guards in Auschwitz to decide which of her two children will be killed (with the proviso that both would be killed immediately if she didn’t make the choice). Silber writes:
When a human being is subjected to a living nightmare in this manner, when a person is forced to endure barbaric, monstrous cruelty, when the only choice is between death and death, the concept of “choice” has been destroyed. The Nazis understood very well that the destruction of this capacity to choose in any meaningful manner, the destruction of the capacity to judge, the destruction of any measurable difference between life and death themselves, is critical to the destruction of the human being, of even the possibility of being human; the concentration camps were a laboratory in which they perfected the means of achieving this end, as Hannah Arendt has so powerfully described.
I refuse to try to “explain” Manning’s statement, just as I refuse to judge it. Anything and everything Manning says, anything and everything he has said or will ever say as long as he remains in custody and in prison, constitute statements obtained through torture. As such, they are not to be credited in any manner, and they are beyond judgment. His torturers have placed Manning’s actions and statements beyond judgment.
I do not want to be misunderstood on this point. Thus far, Manning has said nothing to implicate even one other person; he has certainly not cooperated with the government in the sense of turning “State’s witness,” to build a case against Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, for example. But even if he did that, I would still refuse to judge Manning in terms of his personal character. I would view it as a terrible tragedy, especially terrible if it led to serious danger for anyone else. But I would not blame Manning himself for such an outcome. I would blame his torturers. My view would be as simple as this: Manning is being tortured, and he is trying to survive. Whatever he does is understandable, and there is nothing further to be said about it. Just as we cannot judge Sophie, we cannot judge Manning or anyone else in a similar situation.
There is much more in Silber’s piece. Do go read it as soon as you can.