Bradley Manning, the 25-year old U.S. Army private first class responsible for the WikiLeaks publication of state secrets, stands trial on Monday. Manning's case touches on the various social, political, and military questions we are still trying to answer as country.
Manning has been a poster child for anti-government protesters and internet-freedom advocates. He has admitted to leaking the documents to WikiLeaks and wanted to spark debate about the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This recording released by Democracy Now and the Freedom of the Press Foundation has Manning explaining his actions in his own words:
The "Collateral Murder" video he references is the center of his defense. It was watching the video that Manning's resolve was strengthened. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have now spanned a decade of similar incidents at the hands of the American armed forces. Serving in Iraq himself, Manning wanted people to know that this was an alarming incident at the hands of bloodlusting army members who do not represent him.
The video grandly exposed a nefarious side of war that Americans have had to confront. Military operations are generally blocked from public scrutiny, but what happens when a few rogue individuals go too far? More pressingly, how do we react to these individuals as a society — accept it as a side-effect of a prolonged conflict, or set standards and precedents to be upheld?
The Abu Ghraib scandal is the only other incident that received equal media attention, but that was written off more as an embarrassment than an egregious breach of protocol and troubling disregard for life. Manning's release of the video was prompted by a fundamental repulsion that we as a society must act on.
Now, one can argue that releasing the video should have been all Manning did, and that would be a fair position. He said that he was "buoyed" by the support from the release of the video. This prompted him to release almost half a million classified documents including "U.S. State Department diplomatic cables, war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan, and detainee assessment files for men held at the military’s controversial Guantanamo Bay prison."
That last piece of information released is unfortunately ironic given that Manning's own imprisonment has been called torture by UN standards. Manning's treatment, combined with the recently leaked document about the force-feedings of the still hunger-striking Guantanamo Bay prisoners, reveals a complicated relationship that the military is experiencing with public scrutiny of its practices.
These mistreatments would probably be considered ordinary for military-intimidation techniques. However, we now live in a hyperconnected world where incidents like these do not go hidden for long and cannot be shielded from public anger. The protests against the Vietnam War are proof that this is not a new experience. The availability and speed of transmission of information is a completely new beast, and one that Manning used to his advantage when spreading the documents.
This lurking threat of transparency has to enforce a higher moral prerogative for the military, and for us as a society. In that vein, the presiding judge Col. Denise Lind has already issued Manning 112 days off his eventual sentence in acknowledgment of his excessive mistreatment.
His mistreatment also brings up the issue of mental-health support in the United States. According to The Guardian's Adam Gabbatt and Ed Pilkington, "Manning was held under constant surveillance while at Quantico. He had his possessions removed from his cell and at times even his clothes, often in contravention to the professional medical opinion of psychiatrists." Manning has already been undeniably declared a troubled young man, so further enforcing psychological upheaval helps absolutely no one.
Investigation into his private life prior to his time in the military has also revealed an intimidated and sometimes violent individual. The army had received complaints about his abrasive and emotionally turbulent behavior but they did not revoke his security clearance. This is in addition to the well-documented gender-identity questions which the defense is claiming was clouding his judgment.
At many stages in Manning's life he could have been helped by mental-health professionals had any of his loved ones guided him to seek them. Instead he was constantly pushed away without being given the chance to rehabilitate. Based on this in-depth timeline by The Washington Post it seems obvious that by the time Manning first watched the video that started this whole affair, he was a vulnerable, confused, and erratic person searching for stability and structure.
The level of his guilt or innocence will be decided by Judge Lind. But on a broader level it is clear from his timeline that his wasn't an act of outright treason but of truth. He wasn't trying to "aid the enemy" as one of the more serious charges against him alleges. He was struggling against the issues plaguing us today and trying to understand the truth of himself and his role in society.
The combination of those problems created the circumstances Manning is being tried for starting Monday. Guilty or not, he has undeniably had an impact on how we think about foreign and military policy, which is what he plainly set out to do. But his trial will also present questions about military policies in the information age, mental health support, gender identity, LGBT acceptance, and the moral guidelines of basic human dignity the U.S. needs to uphold.
And as a result, like most things in history that have had an impact, he endangered lives but also affected many others.