Chelsea Manning, formerly known as Bradley Manning, took on arguably the most powerful institution in the world — namely the United States Military — and came away with her dignity intact, despite the apology that left supporters wondering whether it reflected her true sentiments or a desperate effort to reduce her sentence, which now stands at 35 years in prison. David Coombs, Manning’s capable head counsel, remarked in an extended interview that she was in higher spirits than he was after the sentence was announced. Although Ft. Leavenworth is a men’s military prison and she will reportedly not receive treatment for gender dysphoria or any related accommodation, she has apparently already made friends.
I was able to attend her trial at Ft. Meade, Maryland, not far from where I grew up, on the same day, Aug. 14, that she testified before the court and issued the controversial apology for the alleged harm she caused. While I do not believe, based on what I have studied, that the release of the trove of classified documents caused any real harm to the United States (unless, of course, one were to include harming elite interests and the image of the military, which in my view ought to be tarnished if the information were in fact true — and no one, not even the prosecution that sought to paint Manning as a traitor who directly aided the enemy, debates that the information was indeed accurate). Like it or not — whether you are a liberal, a conservative, a moderate, or a radical like me — the United States and its Iraqi clients are responsible for torture, the killing of civilians, false imprisonment, and innumerable other crimes. Manning is no criminal for exposing this; he is a whistleblower who thought the truth would set him free, along with the rest of us. He is a messenger — albeit an inconvenient one — who undeniably went outside the prescribed channels and broke the law, but to call him a criminal and a traitor merely because he went outside prescribed channels and broke the law would be to call Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., who marched on Washington, D.C. a little over a 50 years ago, a criminal and a traitor. It would be trivially true in the technical sense but utterly false in the moral sense.
While ‘hero’ is a loaded word, Manning is certainly no villain. She is a scapegoat. It is easier for the government to blame her for endangering the United States for the release of information to foreign governments and organizations on its policies than to question whether it is in fact those policies themselves that endanger the United States. The U.S. government’s heavy-handed response to whistle-blowers like Manning, Edward Snowden, and others indicates to me that it fears domestic accountability for its abuses more than terrorism or any other foreign threat. Glenn Greenwald, whose partner was wrongfully detained for nine hours by British authorities, supports this conclusion in his defense of Snowden. I admire Manning for willingly taking on the role of scapegoat to attempt to hold the government accountable in the court of U.S. public opinion, even though she was blocked from doing so in the court in which she stood trial this past summer. While the national security state’s hegemony remains intact, Manning put a sizable dent in its armor.
Lastly, I admire her for a different reason — for holding true not only to her principles (namely the commitment to peace and justice through ending the unjust occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq) but to her identity, which is just as inconvenient to the military as the crimes she exposed. She is an inspiration to everyone unfairly closeted due to gender or sexual identity and is now one of the leading foot soldiers in the struggle for transgender recognition and equality. Again, I must invoke the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington and remind us that civil and human rights for all have yet to be won. I personally will not feel ‘free at last,’ despite my relative privilege in this society, until Manning is ‘free at last.’ I ask you to support the Manning Support Network and Amnesty International’s demand that President Obama issue Manning a full and irrevocable pardon. I echo the same call for any other whistle-blower who is being unfairly persecuted. This is one small but necessary step in a much larger struggle toward justice for all.