For anyone versed in the teachings of America's ultimate dissenter, Noam Chomsky, it is difficult to view Bradley Manning as an evil traitor and worthy of hundreds of years in jail. If you have read anything of Chomsky's powerful analysis of state power and international relations, it is impossible to deny some of its darker traits - the use of force to achieve material gain and the ruthless crushing of dissent by entrenched interests. Viewed through the Chomsky lens, states are engaged in perpetual warfare in a winner takes all system - a system the United States has dominated for the best part of 60 years.
To win the game, you bully, coerce, intimidate and destroy. While playing nice sometimes works, the truth is that strength is the ultimate currency, and those with the biggest guns get more of what they want.
Bradley Manning was exposed to that reality while stationed in Iraq where he saw his country brutalize a largely defenseless nation and commit atrocities in the name of oil acquisition and geo political domination. An already psychologically fragile person, war seemed to have a profound effect on Manning, and he used his military privileges to leak classified documents to WikiLeaks in order to shine light on some of the horrendous things his country was doing - specifically the murder and targeting of civilians in Iraq - a leak that put Julian Assange's organization on the map. Manning also leaked secret military documents cataloging what was happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and other volatile regions in the Middle East relevant to U.S. interests, and sensitive diplomatic cables that revealed the inner workings of international diplomacy. It was hugely embarrassing for the United States, causing massive tension with the international community and it put state agencies into a tailspin of serious disarray.
What Manning did was totally and utterly illegal under the law of the land, and he will be punished accordingly. It is clear that Manning will spend many years in jail for his crimes against the state, a fate he was well aware of when he chose to leak secret military documents.
But that does not mean that what Manning did was wrong.
The morality surrounding the case is not clear at all. Much of the left has veered close to the edge of lunacy, depicting Manning as a Jesus like figure who should be revered as an immortal saint for his fight against the tyrannical Obama and the American state. Others (mostly on the right) have called him a narcissistic traitor, and in some cases, demanded his execution.
This isn't a case where the truth is somewhere in between. It is a case where both sides are being childishly irresponsible and naive about the realities of the world we live in, and the truth is just a lot more complicated than either side wants it to be.
The civil libertarian left seems to have a hard time understanding that the nation state system and all the security and military apparatus that goes with it didn't appear over night. Nations have been going to war with each other for centuries. They spy on each other, invade each other and engage in all sorts of nasty subterfuge to get their own way. America is, or at least has been, more successful at it in recent years. There's a reason Americans drive bigger cars, consume more and give less of a shit about the environment than everyone else on the planet: they have bigger guns than everyone else and can pretty much take what they want. Sure it's wrong, but if you live here, pay taxes, go to Starbucks and drive a car, you're a part of it whether you like it or not. Civil libertarians are obsessed with ripping apart the security state and ushering in an era of total transparency - goals that are about as feasible as ending racism around the world. It sounds good in theory, but it simply isn't going to happen.
That isn't to say that America's foreign policy is a good thing - it's just a facet of the whole competing empire syndrome we've been going through since the rise of Sumer 4500 years ago.
Those convinced Manning is a vicious traitor are, at least in my estimation, just as naive and probably a lot nastier. To believe that, you must adhere to the concept of blind loyalty to ones state, no matter what it does. The United States routinely breaks international law and commits crimes against humanity no matter which way you choose to portray it. It illegally invaded Iraq (a fact even neo con Richard Perle admitted) and committed atrocities against its people - facts laid bare by the documents leaked by Manning. You might not like it, but that is exactly what happened (and if you really don't believe it, you can see footage of US soldiers murdering civilians here). Had China invaded the United States and occupied it with equally brutal measures, you can be assured Americans would be hailing Chinese citizens leaking documents about its country's war crimes as heroes. And they would be - just not to patriotic Chinese people who chose not to question their country. Manning is a hero to those on the receiving end of American military might, and he deserves to be remembered as one.
It is also true that Manning displayed massive levels of narcissism in leaking the documents. He knew he'd be caught, and he knew he'd be thrust into international limelight and made a hero by the left. Bob Cesca noted in his column today that, "As with Snowden, there’s a vindictiveness in Manning’s actions —a destructive blurting of information in order to seemingly exact punishment upon his government and the people from which it’s derived." This is a worrying characteristic of the reflexive left that is no longer able to see nuance and gradations of morality. For Manning and others on the hard left, America's intentions are always evil, while the rest of the world's are pure. Take the example of Edward Snowden, who is openly courting some of the most repressive governments on earth for political asylum - a stunningly hypocritical endeavor given the supposed motivation for his NSA leaks. The truth is that much of the left - itself made up of mostly white privilege - suffers from a guilt complex that requires continuous self flagellation and a denial of reality. Yes America does bad things, but it isn't uniquely evil or any worse than other empires throughout history. It is a complex country that does much good and much bad, and like other countries, its morality can't be defined as one thing or the other.
Bradley Manning did a heroic thing for good and for bad reasons. Good because it forced Americans to face the realities of their government's illegal and destructive actions, and bad because it was partly about his own psychological needs. Manning also put lives in danger and broke the law, crimes he will go to jail for.
To argue that Manning should be let go would be to undermine the basis for the nation state itself. Technically, this might be the right thing to do, but in reality, it can't happen. America was built through war, underhand diplomacy and secrecy, and while many would like it to stop, tearing it down by legalizing massive military and security leaks wouldn't result in a liberal utopia where we all got along. The security state took hundreds of years to get to where it is now, and it won't disappear over night.
Unlike Edward Snowden, Manning chose to face the music and go to prison for what he believed in. Perhaps Manning knew this all along, betting his actions would help provoke a longer lasting change by changing public perception about the government. In that light, Manning is certainly a hero. But in the eyes of the law, he's also a criminal. And we should try to understand that both perceptions are correct.