A History of the Vanquished: The Virtue of Chelsea Manning

M[s].1 Manning’s treatment has been intended to send a signal to people of conscience in the U.S. government who might seek to bring wrongdoing to light.

— Julian Assange, ABC News, Aug 21, 2013

Wikileaks chief editor Julian Assange, and leader of the WikiLeaks Party, deemed it a “tactical victory” though still revolting to western concepts of justice. The 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning immediately brings to mind a sense of disproportion, an enormous swatter taken to the hapless fly. True, it was not the Sisyphean rock she would have to push up the hill for the rest of his life. 35 seems better in terms of carceral brutality than 60. But the premise remains grotesque.

For one thing, the documents Manning disclosed, for the vast part, would not have qualified for a sentence beyond their classification date – 25 years. That was the position of the defence, which was rejected by Col. Denise Lind. In another, the material, as pointed out by Chase Madar in The Passion of Bradley Manning (2012) was qualified under the label of “top secret”. From the trove of 250 thousand documents, a mere 15-16 thousand, in Madar’s reading, were “secret”.

The final absurdity here is that no harm came of what effectively was, by any serious analysis, a patriotic affirmation. Not a slither of proof has been adduced to the contrary, despite the numb assertions by an unimaginative prosecution to the contrary. Indeed, as Assange himself pointed out on numerous occasions, the WikiLeaks organisation itself prides itself on having harmed no individual while publishing authentic documents.

No matter for such individuals as Dianne Feinstein of the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee of Intelligence, who persists in the fantasy that harm need not have any form at all, be empirically examined, or even tested. The harm for such individuals as Feinstein lies in the disclosure, not the detail. The latter is irrelevant to the former. Bad girl Manning, good girl Feinstein.

Tactical victories are costly, but the Manning conviction remains the most stunningly violent in terms of its attack on whistleblowers by a western state. The history of WikiLeaks, which is intimately bound to Manning’s activities, is one that revealed the criminal, the unacceptable, and the violent. Furthermore, it operated on the key premise that to expose abuses was not merely a flippant assertion but a discharge of duty. The responsible citizen is democracy’s indispensable sentinel.

A woman who, in all good conscience, revealed the appalling infractions of the U.S. military, who effectively poured cold water on a smug, brutal establishment, is now paying the price that virtue brings.

The police mentality, the surveillance disease, produces terrible symptoms. It institutionalises the collaboration with its truth even as it buttresses the “necessary” lies. It generates its own hideous bureaucratic rationality that the sociologist Max Weber was only too keen to forewarn us about.

For Pentagon Papers whistleblower, Daniel Ellsberg, the Manning conviction sees the traces of a police state appearing on the U.S. security landscape. On Wednesday, a worried Ellsberg told HuffPost Live how, “We have not only the capability of a police state, but certain beginnings of it right now.” Ellsberg is hardly a howling Cassandra, harbinger of dystopian times to come. He is, rather, the realist of his age: to not own up to the condition is to accept an addiction. U.S.A. Inc., via its octopi functions through the NSA and private security firms such as Stratfor, is addicted and is proving to be a violent drunk. Many citizens, without realising it, continue to provide the liquor.

This does not prevent Ellsberg from issuing a call to arms, the message of challenging reform. “And I absolutely agree with Edward Snowden. It’s worth a person’s life, prospect of assassination, or life in prison or life in exile – it’s worth that to try to restore our liberties and make this a democratic country.”

In a peculiar quirk of history, the reformers of democracy, those who have enabled citizens to see its flowing blood again, in fact, to find its veins, are doing so in remote style. They do so in exile; they labour in sanctuary. They do so in the Ecuadorean compound, which has become a centre of magnetic repulsion for the U.S. security state with Assange himself. They do so from a basis of Russian exile, where Edward Snowden remains a threatening voice to the secrecy fiends. (What will be spilling next from his whistling mouth?)

Manning herself has written history, but the writing style has been tormented. She has done what a placard held by a French woman outside the Ecuadorean embassy in Hans Crescent, London described as telling a history of the vanquished (London Review of Books, Jul 19, 2012). While she was speaking about Assange, Manning had provided the valuable ink. The pen will have to continue even as her broken body and being cope with the detention.

It is incumbent for any state-based morality to assume the worst of those who challenge it. That is the fundamental tenet of any police state. According to Ellsberg, we are seeing the start, not so much a creeping as a roar into the sinister spotlight. More to the point, it is incumbent on us to ensure the end of that beginning.

  1. “I Am Chelsea Manning. I Am a Female”: Bradley Manning Announces Gender Transition. This article has been amended accordingly. []

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.