Existentialism is humanism: on Bradley Manning, part 1

“I wanted my own words. But the ones I use have been dragged through I don’t know how many consciences.”― Jean-Paul Sartre, The Wall

Going through endless lines of thoughtful commentary on Pfc Bradley Manning’s (mockery of a) trial, I couldn’t precisely figure out what was exactly being judged – the man or his actions, for or against his government, betraying or upholding the army corps he had joined. The language and prism through which Manning supporters see the world is diametrically opposed to that of his judges, opponents and adversaries. Manning’s confrontation with the court martial he was ordered was supposed to be determining if he legally falls under the definition of a whistleblower. The past few days and the hundred pages scattered around my desk are asking whether Bradley Manning kept a part of his conscience alive and shared it with his country.

The rhetoric is strong around Manning, stronger than it is around Snowden because it reveals a part of government that functions outside of our daily reality, a part usually hidden from civilian sight, a part so removed from the mundane chaos of domestic policies that no one dares to touch it: the US Army is full of heroes, full of unsung characters honored in documentaries and featured films, and, more recently, missed and mourned as they increasingly leave us behind, a flag bearing the star spangled banner folded in a solemn triangle resting on someone’s bedside table. Every Army corps, everywhere in the world, acts according to its own rules: discipline and combat. Because it is inherently impossible to understand the difficulty and dire conditions of combat, we forgive and silently worship soldiers, and leave them to care and judge their peers, outside of our prying ignorant eyes. War used to be just. It used to be honorable. It used to be – maybe not fair, but at least justifiable, and understandable. Then the Soviet Empire fell, and the reign of collusion between shady, vile intelligence agencies and exploiting armed forces created dirty wars. There was nothing understandable nor honorable about war. We were disgusted by soldiers’ actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Pakistan, Yemen, and we no longer knew who to trust, or who was running these green men with rifles; we however kept our heads low, still ensconced in the belief that we could not understand the uniform, and something had to be slipping from our grasp. There was a code of honor that could not be broken. Taking care of soldiers was a collective responsibility that forced us to hold accountable not just the Department of Defense, but our very administration, the orders they were giving in our name, the actions they were commanding with our silent agreement, the places they were sent to possibly beyond the mandate we had assigned. Questioning the armed forces meant questioning society and those who represent us. Questioning the armed forces meant going through the looking glass and look at what is hidden in plain sight. Some people took it upon themselves to embark on that journey and returned with information that is hard to swallow. Yet the wall between army and civil life is one that is hard to break. But Pfc Bradley Manning did. He went on the other side of the fence and told the tale.

Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, did not linger on the definition of a whistleblower. He was arguing in front of a military court and knew Manning’s actions were going to be held against a standard much different and much more stern than a regular criminal court. Manning’s also facing a death sentence. This is not about legal technicalities or extending civilian protection to military personnel, as I initially and naively thought. This is about deciding whether an individual conscience is worth the collective’s; if the outstanding rules guarding Defense secrecy can be bent in cases of extraordinary conditions; it is, in fact, about whether a soldier can be made to forget what he believes in the name of something he doesn’t understand. It is not about Pfc Bradley Manning. We are taking this case to heart because it is about all of us.

The portrait painted by both prosecution and Coombs are of Dorian Gray proportions. Face to face, next to one another, they simply do not paint the same one. According to the Government, Manning is a cunning, manipulative sociopath motivated solely by greed, working for WikiLeaks in exchange for monetary compensation and megalomania, worshipping the complex character that is Julian Assange and conspiring in chat rooms with an unnamed and undisclosed “enemy”, that he is accused of aiding. This Bradley Manning has the maturity to know what is wrong and what is right, but has thrown any sense of righteousness out the window, along with his flag, his uniform, and his country. David Coombs paints a young, idealistic man, a little naive but animated with perhaps outdated and certainly forsaken values that he believes America was based on. Manning joined the military for a cause, like so many before him; he was thrown into deployment unprepared, like so many before him; and he witnessed horrors, like so many before him. But the world has changed and new communications have defined the way we interact with each other; Manning was no longer isolated from civilian life in barracks. He could have access to files and materials he could compare and contrast with what he saw. Assuming Manning would not realize, at one point or another, that the actions he witnessed, filmed and shared were not acceptable, that they were violations, that they were a horrifying display of disregard for human life, is an insult to his intelligence and our collective understanding. We were shocked when tales of torture in Abu Ghraib were released. But we expect Bradley Manning to see with his own eyes the destruction of Iraqi lives – along with the stench of dead human flesh, blinding clouds of dust, the deafening sound of roaring cars and planes flying ahead, and not react. Because a good soldier doesn’t react. Soldiers don’t blow any whistles; they obey orders. There are no military whistleblowers for a reason. We justify war as hard as we can and coat it in resolutions to uphold democracy and freedom to create the illusion of doing the right thing for our soldiers. We ask kids, teenagers, to risk their lives in a country they can’t put on a map – we require of them that they face deadly attacks from unidentified enemies using improbable weapons, so we create reasons for them. We create the illusion of a just war. We create the illusion of having something to fight for. When soldiers realize they lost part of their humanity in the name of neo colonialism and imperialistic expansion, something in them breaks. They’re taking that toll so we don’t have to. But let’s be clear – the burden of having sent them over is on us. And here comes Bradley Manning.

David Coombs presented Bradley Manning as someone who could not stand what he saw and stay silent. The argument that Manning would only contact WikiLeaks for fame doesn’t hold up in the face of reality: WikiLeaks has never brought safety, comfort and immunity to its contributors. WikiLeaks has never saved someone from detention. Manning is not the only one to take risks in the name of “doing the right thing”: journalists are now accepting prison sentences rather than giving away what was rightfully theirs. Edward Snowden has given up on his birth rights rather than keeping silent. Bradley Manning may have not chosen the runaway life of a whistleblower in full knowledge of the consequences. Up to his arrest, the possibility that he would have everything taken away from him – even fundamental rights as a prisoner – seemed to barely brush his mind. It is not even necessarily clear in Coombs’ closing arguments whether Manning fully grasps the extent to which he has shaken the core of the American society by bridging army life with collective civilian responsibility. Snowden requested Tolstoy in his Russian exile; has someone brought Sartre to Manning yet?

“There is no determinism; we are freedom, we are free. (…) We are not facing values or orders that can make our behavior legitimate. We do not have, ahead or behind us , in the luminous realm of values, justifications or excuses. We are alone, without excuses. That’s what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned because he did not create himself, but because once he is thrown into the world, he is responsible of everything he does. (…) I can not rely on men that I do not know simply based on a supposed kindness of mankind, or in one person’s willingness to act in society’s best interest, because men are free, and there is no such thing as human nature. (…) What existentialism means, is that a weakling makes himself so; that a hero makes himself so; that there will always be a possibility for the weak man to become a hero, and for a hero to stop being heroic. What matters is commitment, total commitment; and this is not one specific action, one specific case, it is what we are.”

This is not a new debate. It is as old as the Obama administration. In fact, it can be traced back to Daniel Ellsberg, the father figure of all and any whistleblower. Treating Bradley Manning like an immature idiot fascinated by America’s strange relationship to fame and only achieving exposure of war crimes to land a Rolling Stone cover is missing the point by a margin as wide as the coral reef barrier. Coombs may have described Manning as naive for the reason that he is lacking the cynicism we have learnt to accept as being a collateral to maturity: that there are no such thing as higher values (except christianity), no such thing as a higher authority (except christianity), no such thing as philosophical aspirations (only religious ones). Upon entering the military, Manning was expected to check all these beliefs at the door. It is unclear whether Manning already had such a strong existentialist vision for himself before he came upon his first deployment in Iraq. But this is clearly what he now stands for, whether he will acknowledge it or not. It is his individual sense of responsibility towards the collective that led him to release the video that made the rounds through WikiLeaks and on the rest of the Internet; the sense that he was an unwilling participant into a circus of bloody chaos and mayhem that could only lead to more destruction and more death.

Tomorrow, circa 1pm EST, a verdict will be rendered against Manning for having acted as a free man.

All thanks to Alexa O’Brien, whose coverage of the Manning trial is exemplary of journalism and responsibility. Follow her @carwinb


About K
bastard banshee. devious lawyer. Lucille Bluth. probably jetlagged.

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