Bradley Manning and the Secret World

Poor Bradley Manning. The kid can’t catch a break. Not only does the military have him locked in some inhuman solitary hole where they can slow-torture him using the latest approved methods, now his troubled private life is being broadcast for all to see.

After running 75,000 secret military field reports released by WIkiLeaks, The New York Times assigned a reporter, Ginger Thompson, to find out personal details about PFC Manning, who is being held at the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia.

What she found was a sensitive, smart kid who did his best to survive the mess he landed in when he was born. A dysfunctional family life seems to have pushed him into the loner category. Then, as kids are encouraged to do by recruitment posters, he chose to join the Army, as Thompson writes, “to give his life some direction.”

Nothing out of the ordinary, here. A recruiter realizes the kid is quite smart, maybe a bit nerdy, but he’s a wiz with computers. As a former employer told Thompson, Manning was blessed with “an almost innate sense for programming.”

But then the Times reveals that Manning is homosexual, which means, because the military’s absurd “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is finally being discussed in an adult fashion, the Manning story is a potential bomb in that discussion.

The formation of a loner

Smart yet unable to fit in and the subject of ridicule for being gay everywhere he went, Manning became a loner with a keen sense of survival. He also exhibited a temper, or as the ex-boss who fired him put it, he had “the personality of a bull in a China shop.” Thompson reports he “assaulted an officer” in Iraq.

A friend from Manning’s early childhood in Oklahoma told the British Daily Mail Manning identified as gay at age 13. Then, he’s off to live with his mother in her native Wales, and a friend in the high school there describes the anti-gay taunting as “like going back in time to the Dark Ages.”

Tyler Watkins, left, and Bradley ManningTyler Watkins, left, and Bradley Manning

Daniel and Patricia EllsbergDaniel and Patricia Ellsberg

Next, Manning is ping-ponged back to Oklahoma to live with his father, who had a career in the military. When his father learns his son is gay, he throws him out of the house. Manning ends up living in his car.

It is, here, he joins the United States Army and is accepted as an analyst in its intelligence branch with a top-secret clearance. No recruiter would likely have confused him for a macho, knife-in-the-teeth killer. He’s the classic nerdy kid with great computer skills, a character type even General Stanley McChrystal recognizes, in his famous Rolling Stone interview, as highly valuable to the military.

The final act of the Manning story begins in Massachusetts, while he is at Fort Drum in New York, before deployment to Iraq. He becomes involved with a young male musician studying at Brandeis University. His name is Tyler Watkins and, according to Thompson, he’s connected with various antiwar and computer hacker communities in the area.

Here you have a very smart, troubled kid who feels he’s been kicked around, desperately seeking some kind of shelter from the storm, some kind of social anchor to make sense out of his crazy young life. He has joined the military for practical reasons, and just like in school, it’s a nasty, hostile climate. His identification with the military seems quite negative.

So it makes sense someone like Manning would fit in with a lively, artistic and computer-smart community like the one he apparently fell into in Massachusetts and that welcomed him with open arms – apparently quite literally, in one case. And it needs to be stated, it’s not a crime to be lively, artistic and opposed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fact Manning is homosexual has zero relevance to the importance of the WikiLeaks story, which is about confronting the US military’s regime of secrecy that keeps information about its wars from the citizens who pay for them and in whose name they are fought. Manning’s sex life has no more relevance to the issues at hand than Daniel Ellsberg’s heterosexuality did to the Pentagon Papers and the Vietnam War.

But of course I’m dreaming. This is tea party time, and the circus is in town.

The queers are coming! The queers are coming!

If the right wing blogosphere is any indication, the right seems poised to turn the Manning case into an argument for increased repression against homosexuals in the military.

There’s this from the Family Research Council blog:

“Manning’s betrayal painfully confirms what groups like FRC have argued all along: the instability of the homosexual lifestyle is a detriment to military readiness.”

Then Cliff Kincaid of the right-wing Accuracy in Media writes this on a blog called “Right Side: The Right News For America.”

“Was Manning given a pass because his ‘lifestyle’ was acceptable under the Obama administration?” He decries “the obvious mishandling of this homosexual ticking time bomb.” Echoing Joseph McCarthy, he warns of “a secret homosexual network in the military.”

You can see it forming: Queers are undermining America, and Bradley Manning is the vanguard!

What is said to motivate the hacker community is a belief that information is democratically owned by all. There are certainly gray areas here, and reasonable people can argue about them. But what’s important is this idea about the democratic ownership of information is the spirit that also motivates WikiLeaks and its Australian founder and director, Julian Assange.

Homosexuality in this matter is, as it always has been, a distraction, as it was in the old days when homosexuals could not be in sensitive government positions because they were said to be susceptible to blackmail. Yet, if homosexuals are not made to hide and are open about their sexuality — as in antiquity and in Native American societies – that threat totally evaporates.

The fact is, a democratic interest in the ownership of information is antithetical to the United States military. Most secrets are rooted in some form of embarrassment or shame, which means to sustain an absurd war the public must be kept in the dark. That was true in Daniel Ellsberg’s day; it’s true today.

Is Bradley Manning an American Hero?

I’ve gotten flak from several veteran friends for declaring Manning to be an “American hero.” I should be more cautious; wait and see what the kid’s motives really are.

Manning is not a hero in the propaganda macho-warrior mode. But is that limitation realistic? And, for that matter, can a 22-year-old, emotionally-troubled homosexual even be seen by the average American who fears homosexuality as something contagious?

The only question that matters is, does the publication by WikiLeaks of the material Manning is purported to have leaked amount to a good thing or a bad thing for Americans? Is it good or bad for peace in the world? In both cases, I say the former.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is “appalled” about the possibility some Afghan informer’s name will be discovered in the leaked material by the Taliban and he will be killed. So far, nothing like this has happened, since we know if it did we would not hear the end of it. WikiLeaks held back 15,000 reports to avoid this eventuality. But, still, it could happen, and if it does, is it tantamount to “collateral damage” for WikiLeaks?

Probably, yes. But then there’s the question who is actually more responsible for putting people in harm’s way in Afghanistan, the US military and those who have kept the war going for nine years or those who question the war by shining sunlight on its operations?

Let’s not kid ourselves, the tally for collateral damage on the side of the US military is a gruesome embarrassment. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is highly critical of it. Plus, this kind of killing is the precise subject of Bradley Manning’s original leak, the Apache nose video called “Collateral Murder.”

When it comes to Iraqi and Afghan civilian deaths, the battle between the US military and WikiLeaks over who deserves the most damnation for collateral damage is grotesquely asymmetrical.

We need to go easy on PFC Manning for the foibles of his young, troubled life. And we need to focus on WikiLeaks and the need to address the regime of secrecy that allows our leaders to sustain a war like the one in Afghanistan that no longer makes any sense and is bankrupting the nation financially and morally.

More public attention needs to be focused on Manning’s human right to be treated in a dignified manner as he approaches a trial. He deserves to be allowed visitors and to have a battery of smart civilian lawyers. Before he is a pawn of the US Army, he is an American citizen. Why should he not be given bail? Finally, like Daniel Ellsberg’s before him, Manning’s story is important, and reporters should be allowed access to interview him.

The condition of rigid seclusion he is being held in is a perfect example of the regime of secrecy at the very heart of this story.

The post-9/11, Guantanamo-style tactic of solitary confinement calculated to psychologically maim or destroy a person is simply un-American. It needs to be discontinued. Though there is absolutely no similarity between the two cases, the rigid pre-trial seclusion of Jose Padilla in a brig in South Carolina turned that individual into a walking basket case by the time of his trial. This cannot be allowed to happen to Bradley Manning.

When a soldier signs a contract with the United States military he does not relinquish his fundamental human rights and the right to be treated with dignity. That means the right to outside attorneys and to visits from his family and his friends. Justice is the goal, here, not the pre-trial destruction of a human being.

There’s more at stake here than plugging leaks. As in the Pentagon Papers 39 years ago, what’s at stake is American citizens’ right to know.