Human Rights and the Military

Reading the articles and dialogues surrounding the case of Bradley Manning generally leaves me with the feeling that somehow I have become an over-simplistic, humanistic zombie. Allow me to speculate from a place of personal and historical recall. Bradley Manning, rightly or wrongly, joined the military only to discover, as many of us do who follow that path, that time spent in National Service was not all that it was imagined it to be. After what I would assume might have been a goodly number of internal dialogues and personal deliberations, he opted to stray from an increasingly common course of blind obedience. For Mr. Manning, some personal, cathartic moment led and motivated him to bring into the light, the unchanging historical Truth of our National mission.

One cannot for an instant begin to presume Bradley Manning was in one breath the sage and the next the fool. It would be equally ludicrous to believe he was somehow unaware of the import of the information he was about to make public. One cannot suppose he was naively ignorant of the possible “official” responses to his actions within what all know to be the totalitarian environment of military service. This is especially the case for those who actually reside within the system of of the “armed forces.” Those who preside over this system consistently and persistently make it clear, there is a hierarchy of rule and order. It is the incessant mantra of the day. Only the village idiot could miss the ever present message of action and consequence.

Bradley Manning chose to act, while an active duty member of the “volunteer” Army, outside the safe boundaries of logic and rationality. Mr. Manning’s actions were those which we, his fellow humans, would hope to be the actions of the majority of our species as well. Mechanistic responses of logic and rationality gave way to human emotion and compassion. The consequence of this human action within its context, was easily predictable.

It would then seem that the subject, which has been taken to task by progressives, could not possibly be that of existential accountability. It would appear instead that liberal sensibilities are outraged in response to the “inhumane” treatment of Bradley Manning, received at the hands of those who literally (and “legally” for whatever it is worth) hold him captive. The absence of a higher moral code of human behavior among his captors seems more a matter of concern among many of those who classify themselves as liberals than the self initiated acts of conscience and free will which led to his incarceration. It is at this juncture that the entire issue becomes problematic for me.

In general humans crave attention for actions they have taken in the public sector. When our thoughts or behaviors are adjudged to be “good” we gladly bask in the limelight of adulation. Conversely when our actions are viewed less favorably we hurriedly seek circumstances outside ourselves upon which to place accountability. In the case of Bradley Manning, we have elected to direct our public outrage toward the military subculture and the soldiers who find themselves to be elements within it. We ask of them and ourselves, “How can they not only allow but participate in such blatant disregard for the basic human rights of another human being?”

Raising the issue of moral or humanitarian behaviors within the context of a social instrument (the Military) designed and specifically tasked with penultimate antisocial and inhumane objectives (i.e. those of the coercion and/or killing of state sanctioned “enemies”) is either quintessential hypocrisy or madness. The military culture is not a spontaneous event. It is a social construct evolved and developed over the course of our human history and arising from the primal desire of our species to survive. The military, at this juncture in its evolution, is an end game. Military objectives at the level of the individual soldier are not directed at middle ground or compromise. Objectives are very simple: win or lose, live or die. This is pointedly reflected in a variety of boot camp indoctrinations engineered to aid in the transition of the individual from civilian to soldier. I can still hear the voice of my own Marine Corps drill instructor during our bayonet training, “Slide the leading foot forward (accompanied by a jabbing motion with my bayonet ensconced rifle) Kill !!! Kill !!! Kill !!!” Duly note the D.I.’s instructions were not to wound, disable, frighten nor incapacitate. Not surprisingly, the concept at work here was not that of scaring an enemy into submission but rather that of conditioning the soon to be soldier to the unconventional task of killing or risk being killed.

Under the Geneva Conventions, “protected persons” are identified as: wounded or sick fighters, prisoners of war, civilians, medical and religious personnel. As such:

Protected persons are entitled, in all circumstances, to respect for their persons, their honor, their family rights, their religious convictions and practices, and their manners and customs. They shall, at all times, be humanely treated, and shall be protected, especially against all acts of violence or threats thereof and against insults and public curiosity.

This can be contrasted with the United States’ military mission as quoted from the USMC Warfighting Manual regarding the wartime mission of the Marine Corps:

The object in war is to impose our will on our enemy. The means to this end is the organized application or threat of violence by military force. The target of that violence may be limited to hostile combatant forces, or it may extend to the enemy population at large.

Stop here for a moment and attempt to juxtapose the concept of “the organized application or threat of violence by military force” with that of “respect for their persons, their honor, family rights, religious convictions /practices, and their manners and customs.” Not only is this task difficult, but I would guess nearly impossible. Try as one may, these two antithetical conceptual models of behavior do not reside well within the same framework.

The difficulty arises in part from the fact that each is a dichotomous aspect of situational ethics. The military construct is obviously a product of our most primitive primal drive toward survival, (kill or be killed, survival of the fittest) and is common among most species. It has presumably been with us since our inception and has been integral in our ongoing existence in an environment which is becoming increasingly hostile and aggressive. (The latter being a “natural” consequence, from the Dark Ages to the present, of increasing numbers of consumers competing for proportionally decreasing resources.)

The other is a by-product of ourselves in our role as “clever monkey’s.” Based upon little more than evolved survival skills and a self-proclaimed presumption of hierarchical superiority, we preside over all that we purvey. It is the process by which we attempt to demonstrate through “intellect” and/or “Divine right” arguments those justifications which support our reversals and contradictions in ethical and moral behaviors. We are intellectual, we are spiritual, we are evolved; we are the (co)creators of ourselves and our beliefs. That being said, are we not the creators of our humane/inhumane dichotomy as well?

The antagonist of this current morality play is the Military/Industrial paradigm, a construct to which we provide 54% of our national budget. The individual soldiers, several of whom serve in the capacity of “guards” for Mr. Manning were provided the highest and most advanced training available to perform the jobs we require of them at an average cost to the taxpayer of $400,000.00 per soldier. In his book, On Killing, Lt. Colonel David Grossman indicates that much psychological work has been done to enhance the training and ultimately the efficiency of our soldiers in the performance their roles. As the title of the book implies and the statistical data provided supports, we have become extremely skilled at the task of killing our own to survive. For the average U.S. citizen, the relative success of our investment in those who serve in our national defense can be somewhat attested to by the infrequency of “violence or threats of violence by military force” implemented by foreign armies, occurring within our own National boundaries.

How our “security,” (from the level of the individual to the more global scale of protecting the resources of the larger society overall) is achieved, and at what human cost, is something of which “civilized” societies prefer not to be aware. To this end the military is, for the most part, allowed autonomous self governance regarding the attainment of their objectives. By contemporary example one need look only at the torture which has taken place at Guantanamo Bay or Bagram Airbase, the more recent state sanctioned assassinations of Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden, or the ongoing daily predator airstrikes which have killing hundreds of innocent civilians through out the Middle East. Examples of our most negative human potentials are running rampant. On a Likert scale where 1 is the most primal and savage of responses and 10 the most humanistic utopian ideal, successful military operations in the field would depend upon actions far closer to one than ten.

The morality of torture, murder and assassination is not situational. If these actions are wrong for the individual members of a society or are to be used as the criteria by which we adjudge a societies’ enemies, then this is a standard we must apply to ourselves as well. If we are to exempt a subculture within our society (the Military) from the cultural mores which we claim define us, then we must also waive our right to criticism and judgement of their actions. It is far too convenient and hypocritical to lay blame and responsibility for that which we as a society have condoned upon those (the individual soldiers) who have the least ability or access to power to resist what we ask of them. If we continue to allow our military to engage in acts of aggression such as assassinations and military occupations of other sovereign nations without even so much as a Declaration of War, or if by our silence we are complicit in their behaviors, then we must bear equal or greater responsibility for these actions as well.

T.E. Origer is a disability retired USMC combat veteran of America's War in Vietnam. He attributes many of his political views to his experiences in one of the largest socialist organizations in the country, the United States Marine Corps. He can be reached for comment at: Read other articles by T.E..