Chelsea Manning Pardon: We Can't Ignore the Impact of Aggressive U.S. Foreign Policy

Following U.S. Army Pfc. Chelsea Manning’s sentencing, her letter to President Obama requesting a pardon was circulated by defense attorney David Coombs on Wednesday. In her request, Manning discussed morality, the role of the United States military, and patriotism in a truly epic testimonial. Even if Manning does not receive a pardon, Americans should seize this moment as an opportunity to discuss the theory of “blowback” and how it relates to the United States’ interventionist foreign policy.

Manning dedicated much of her letter to discussing the rationale of enlisting in the army after the 9/11 attacks and how she came to question the military's tactics. She stated, “We’ve been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on any traditional battlefield, and due to this fact, we’ve had to alter our methods of combating the risks posed to us and our way of life. I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend my country. It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing.” As a millennial who has had close friends and family members serve in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo Bay post-9/11, I recognize a pattern in Manning’s moral objections.

Manning went on to explain how by “elect[ing] to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability," the military is able to insulate itself from the American public's increasing opposition to our interventionist foreign policy. She explained how patriotism is a tool used to excuse the questionable acts “advocated by those in power” and “it is usually the American soldier that is given the order to carry out some ill-conceived mission.”

It is important to consider how invoking patriotism has the harrowing effect of dissuading critics from discussing the negative consequences of interventionist foreign policy. Back in the 2008 Republican primary cycle, presidential hopeful Ron Paul was admonished by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani during a debate. In the debate, Ron Paul explained, “Have you ever read about the reasons they attacked us? They attack us because we’ve been over there. We’ve been bombing Iraq for 10 years.” Rather than consider how U.S. foreign policy had caused blowback, Guilani compared Ron Paul to 9/11 truthers and demanded an apology.


But, Paul was unrelenting. In a post-debate interview, Paul stated, “The whole notion that our foreign policy has nothing to do with [terrorism] and that Giuliani has never heard of this is preposterous. Even the 9/11 investigation report supports my position that there is blowback, that there are consequences.” Paul concluded by providing Giuliani with reading material to educate him on how interventionist foreign policy causes terrorism, including the 9/11 Commission Report and Chalmers Johnson’s book, Blowback.

According to renowned American author and professor Chalmers Johnson, “’Blowback' is a CIA term first used in March 1954 in a recently declassified report on the 1953 operation to overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the U.S. government’s international activities that have been kept secret from the American people.” Johnson wrote much about the American empire throughout his career and in his September 27, 2001 article titled, “Blowback,” he explained that “the suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not 'attack America,' as our political leaders and the news media like to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy.” This is an important consideration for anyone who attempts to make the claim that terrorists simply loathe Western culture. Johnson’s writing about blowback continues to be relevant even as the CIA recently acknowledged its involvement in Iran’s 1953 coup.

Manning’s reaction to her 35-year prison sentence for leaking classified documents should be remembered for her ability to maintain a sense of courage and moral conviction rather than blind patriotism. As Manning’s letter concluded, “If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.” Human equality and freedom are not things that can be codified into a legal document; they are unalienable rights, as United States Founding Fathers wrote in the Declaration of Independence.