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Bradley Manning: Criminal or Whistleblower?

Military officials never want to talk about civilian casualties—unless they can pin them on someone like Bradley Manning.

| Thu Jan. 19, 2012 3:32 PM EST

In early 2011, to pick just one example from the ranks of journalism, New Yorker writer George Packer professed his horror that WikiLeaks had released a memo marked "secret/noforn" listing spots throughout the world of vital strategic or economic interest to the United States. Asked by radio host Brian Lehrer whether this disclosure had crossed a new line by making a gratuitous gift to terrorists, Packer replied with an appalled yes.

Now, among the "secrets" contained in this document are the facts that the Strait of Gibraltar is a vital shipping lane and that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is rich in minerals. Have we Americans become so infantilized that factoids of basic geography must be considered state secrets? (Maybe best not to answer that question.) The "threat" of this document's release has since been roundly debunked by various military intellectuals.

Nevertheless, Packer's response was instructive. Here was a typical liberal hawk, who had can-canned to the post-9/11 drumbeat of war as a therapeutic wake-up call from "the bland comforts of peace," now affronted by WikiLeaks' supposed recklessness. Civilian casualties do not seem to have been on Packer's mind when he supported the invasion of Iraq, nor has he written much about them since.

In an enthusiastic 2006 New Yorker essay on counterinsurgency warfare, for example, the very words "civilian casualties" never come up, despite their centrality to COIN theory, practice, and history. It is a fact that, as Operation Enduring Freedom shifted to counterinsurgency tactics in 2009, civilian casualties in Afghanistan skyrocketed. So, for that matter, have American military casualties. (More than half of US military deaths in Afghanistan occurred in the past three years.)

Liberal hawks like Packer may consider WikiLeaks out of bounds, but really, who in these last years has been the most reckless, Bradley Manning—or George Packer and some of his pro-war colleagues at the New Yorker like Jeffrey Goldberg (who has since left for the Atlantic Monthly, where he's been busily clearing a path for war with Iran) and editor David Remnick?

Centrist and liberal nonprofit think tanks have been no less selectively blind when it comes to civilian carnage. Liza Goitein, a lawyer at the liberal-minded Brennan Center at NYU Law School, has also taken out after Bradley Manning. In the midst of an otherwise deft diagnosis of Washington's compulsive urge to over-classify everything—the federal government classifies an amazing 77 million documents a year—she pauses just long enough to accuse Manning of "criminal recklessness" for putting civilians named in the Afghan War logs in peril—"a disclosure," as she puts it, "that surely endangers their safety."

It's worth noting that, until the moment Goitein made this charge, not a single report or press release issued by the Brennan Center has ever so much as uttered a mention of civilian casualties caused by the US military. The absence of civilian casualties is almost palpable in the work of the Brennan Center's program in "Liberty and National Security." For example, this program's 2011 report "Rethinking Radicalization," which explored effective, lawful ways to prevent American Muslims from turning terrorist, makes not a single reference to the tens of thousands of well-documented civilian casualties caused by American military force in the Muslim world, which according to many scholars is the prime mover of terrorist blowback. The report on how to combat the threat of Muslim terrorists, written by Pakistan-born Faiza Patel, does not, in fact, even contain the words "Iraq," "Afghanistan," "drone strike," "Pakistan" or "civilian casualties."

This is almost incredible, because terrorists themselves have freely confessed that what motivated their acts of wanton violence has been the damage done by foreign military occupation back home or simply in the Muslim world. Asked by a federal judge why he tried to blow up Times Square with a car bomb in May 2010, Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad answered that he was motivated by the civilian carnage the US had caused in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. How could any report about "rethinking radicalization" fail to mention this? Although the Brennan Center does much valuable work, Goitein's selective finger-pointing on civilian casualties is emblematic of a blindness to war's consequences widespread among American institutions.

 

American Military Whistleblowers

Knowledge may indeed have its risks, but how many civilian deaths can actually be traced to the WikiLeaks revelations? How many military deaths? To the best of anyone's knowledge, not a single one. After much huffing and puffing, the Pentagon has quietly denied—and then denied again—that there is any evidence at all of the Taliban targeting the Afghan civilians named in the leaked war logs.

In the end, the "grave risks" involved in the publication of the War Logs and of those State Department documents have been wildly exaggerated. Embarrassment, yes. A look inside two grim wars and the workings of imperial diplomacy, yes. Blood, no.

On the other hand, the grave risks that were hidden in those leaked documents, as well as in all the other government distortions, cover-ups, and lies of the past decade, have been graphically illustrated in aortal red. The civilian carnage caused by our rush to war in Iraq and by our deeply entrenched stalemate of a war in Afghanistan (and the Pakistani tribal borderlands) is not speculative or theoretical but all-too real.

And yet no one anywhere has been held to much account: not in the political class, not in the military, not in the think tanks, not among the scholars, nor the media. Only one individual, it seems, will pay, even if he actually spilled none of the blood. Our foreign policy elites seem to think Bradley Manning is well-cast for the role of fall guy and scapegoat. This is an injustice.

Someday, it will be clearer to Americans that Pfc. Manning has joined the ranks of great American military whistleblowers like Dan Ellsberg (who was first in his class at Marine officer training school); Vietnam War infantryman Ron Ridenhour, who blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre; and the sailors and marines who, in 1777, reported the torture of British captives by their politically connected commanding officer. These servicemen, too, were vilified in their times. Today, we honor them, as someday Pfc. Manning will be honored.

Chase Madar is the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, to be published by OR Books in February. He is an attorney in New York, a TomDispatch regular, and a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, American Conservative Magazine, and CounterPunch. (To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Madar discusses the coming trial of Bradley Manning, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) He tweets @ChMadar. Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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