All in all, it’s hard to see how the trial of Private Bradley Manning could have ended any better for the U.S. government.
For starters, Manning was convicted, not that the verdict was ever in doubt, with President Obama declaring that “he broke the law” even before the trial opened, the president apparently having skipped the class at Harvard Law where the presumption of innocence was covered. Still, even though it was a foregone conclusion, the guilty verdict meant that the government’s three-year enterprise of pursuing, jailing, tormenting and finally prosecuting the hapless soldier for leaking military and diplomatic files, more than half of them not classified at all, gets at least a light dusting of vindication.
Not only vindication, but fairness too. The military judge herself gagged on the charge that Manning had aided the enemy — a count that would have made his leaks to the news media no different from a sale of troop deployment data to the Taliban. The judge’s rejection of the aiding-the-enemy charge was applauded as evidence of wisdom and restraint, rather than an implicit repudiation of the whole point of the case. If enemies didn’t benefit, why should we care about the leaks as anything more than a momentary bureaucratic embarrassment? Why on Earth did the prosecution demand 60 years behind bars?
The news media — the only entities that unquestionably benefited from the leaks — helped keep the idea alive that something momentous, even transformative, was at stake. Without doing any actual reporting to determine how much the 700,000 documents Manning channeled to Wikileaks actually mattered, the media insisted his actions were a grave offense. The New York Times, which denounced editorially the severity of the sentence, in its news columns still referred to his actions, breathlessly, as “a gigantic leak that lifted the veil on American military and diplomatic activities around the world.” It did?
Then Manning himself relieved the government of any obligation to show that his actions actually did any harm when he appealed for compassion during the sentencing phase of his trial, referring to evils that were never introduced into evidence or documented in press accounts. “I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I’m sorry that they hurt the United States,” he said. “I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people.”
Finally, facing 35 years in prison, Manning announced he wanted henceforth to be known as Chelsea, not Bradley, and intended to live the rest of his, or now her, life as the woman she had always been. She would seek whatever hormonal and surgical interventions that might require. Catnip to the media, and various news outfits expended barrels of digital ink figuring out whether Manning would get the medical help she sought, and exploring the grammatical rules that should govern references to her gender.
For the government, it was too good to be true. This idealistic young soldier, outraged by the deceit and wrongdoing he discovered at work, says he’s sorry for having wanted to make these wrongs publicly known, admits doing incalculable harm — though without evidence of any — allows actions that others regarded as heroic to be redefined as the byproduct of psychosexual dysfunction.
The full range of realities that Manning’s leaks brought to light has yet to be inventoried, and only a fraction of them have been made public. The Guardian, the London daily that co-published the military and diplomatic logs that Manning gave to Wikileaks, has argued that some of the most contentious information he made available — the torture of prisoners by this country’s Iraqi allies, for instance, and the secret (and far more accurate) in-house U.S. estimates of the appalling level of civilian suffering in Iraq — has already quietly slipped into the official history of the aftermath of the U.S. invasion.
That suggests the debt we owe Manning may be hard to determine, as is the answer to the question of why that information was sealed away in the first place.
What’s not hard to determine is the lopsided sense of justice his sentence represents. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it seems clear, offered untold opportunities for brutality and crime, and at this moment the argument that either war was either necessary or successful isn’t an easy one to make.
It would indeed be sad and telling if the strongest reckoning from those wars, the sternest punishment, should go not to their architects, nor to those who waged them wrongly, but to a lowly grunt whose only sin was to try to get the rest of us to pay attention to them.