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The Passion of Bradley Manning

by Chase Madar
Reviewed by Abdeen Jabara

the Passion of Bradley ManningAnyone who reads Chase Madar’s much-needed and thought-provoking book, The Passion of Bradley Manning, is going to either love it or hate it. I loved it. The reader is going to be furious or delighted. I was both.

Madar’s 140-page tour de force does not mollycoddle anyone’s liberal sensibilities; if Manning’s pre-trial detention by the United States government fits the definition of torture, so be it. Indeed, our much-vaunted American values, which sound so nice in the academy and among the pundits and politicians, are more often than not hung out on a taut line to flap in the wind.

Take the issue of transparency, a much abused word. While Madar gives only a brief review of the government’s penchant for secrecy, he provides abundant detail about the gross, almost obscene, amount of data which have been classified as confidential, secret or top secret, all based on a notion of “public safety.” We are told that the number of documents that were so classified numbered 77,000,000 in 2010 alone. Given the fact that 850,000 Americans hold top secret security clearance and the fact that most if not all of these classified data are stored electronically, it was and is only a matter of time before the materials got out.

Madar’s treatment of Manning’s story is riveting as he makes the case that his protagonist deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The reader is taken from his painful childhood in a dysfunctional family to his decision to enlist in the army. Enlisting offered a way to Manning’s dream of a college education. It offered an escape.

Because of his short stature and other failures to meet the requirements of the armed forces, Bradley Manning would not have been forced into service in the time of the draft, but when American leadership found that the draft and our citizens’ army were no longer viable operations, the switch was made to an all-volunteer military. This made the military—like a university with declining enrollment or a car manufacturer with shrinking sales—require an increasing number of inducements, even ones for cash back.

Bradley Manning was in some ways a perfect recruit. He had computer skills, and they were much needed for war management in the field. This is probably why he was the only one removed from a special “discharge unit” into which soldiers who had serious army adjustment problems were placed pending their final discharges before completion of their tours of duty. But what the army failed to appreciate, or did not catch, was that Manning had not internalized as had so many of his fellow soldiers the uncritical and unthinking acceptance of what had been happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The heart of The Passion is made up of the four chapters that follow the description of Manning’s beginning. They set forth the context in which Manning acted. In these chapters, Madar provides a history of various whistleblowers in America and their treatment. He explains the way in which leaks of classified information occur almost routinely in the jockeying for political power that defines Washington, DC. Journalists, lobbyists, foreign agents and even government officials are often known to be responsible and yet are almost never prosecuted. The representatives and employees of other countries that are allies of the U.S., such as Israel, have been especially adept at obtaining and releasing classified information with impunity.

Madar fearlessly tackles another crucial piece of the context of Manning’s story: this country’s attitude toward pre-trial detention. He makes a powerful argument that, as compared with other cases, the solitary confinement of Bradley Manning equals torture and violates this country’s own commitment under international law to end torture. The author makes clear that Manning is not the only one subjected to inhumane conditions: his treatment echoes that meted out over past decades to tens of thousands of state and federal prisoners. The scandal of solitary confinement and its proven harm to detainees are state-sponsored crimes that exist outside the concerns of mainstream Americans.

The story of Manning and the American legal system is harrowing one. Manning was charged on July 5, 2010, with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. His case will be heard by a military tribunal. Manning faces the death penalty if he is convicted. The factual basis of the charge includes the allegation that Manning provided Wikileaks, which in turn released them to the press, thousands of secret documents on Iraq, Afghanistan and U.S. diplomatic affairs. At the first pre-trial hearing was on April 27, 2012, the judge denied defense motions to dismiss the charges and to have access to discovery of information held by the government. The refusal to permit discovery severely limits his counsel’s ability to provide Manning with even the semblance of an effective defense.

A lawyer by training and practice, Madar brings sophistication and subtlety to his explanation of the legal issues. He doesn’t bore the reader with a long legal brief on whistleblowing, espionage and “aiding the enemy.” His clear explication is consistent with the call-to-arms tenor of this wonderful book. Although some may wish for more background on the case’s legal posture, most will be satisfied with the excellent timeline that guides the reader up to the February 3, 2012, referral of charges to a general court martial. Madar challenges us to think outside formulaic legalisms and to recognize that these laws, like many others, have more often than not been enacted and enforced as a method of social control of the poor and weak for the benefit of the rich and powerful. Madar authoritatively explains the myth of the rule of law: “[T]he threat comes from those who hold themselves above the law and have the power in fact to stay above it.”

Madar’s criticism is not limited to those in positions of obvious power when he notes the weak and occasionally non-existent response of many organizations in the human rights advocacy community. They complain about the lawlessness of U.S. troop depredations in its wars abroad but are willing to take an arms-length stance or to say nothing at all about the treatment of Bradley Manning. He is brave to take on both the liberal opposition and the government, and his argument is persuasive: both engage in hypocritical invocation of the rule of law and both enable its use in service of empire.

Of course, the restructuring of a national security state after 9/11 for a global war on terror combined with the prosecution of two “hot” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a situation where someone outside the establishment had to be a target, and not just another foreigner. It was time to go after domestic opposition. That was the climate for the prosecution of Bradley Manning.

One could make the argument that, with the hastily cobbled together war in Iraq to follow a war in Afghanistan (the “good war” in the minds of many Democrats), there is almost an American penchant for war. It was not, as we have been taught in school, the last, worst option. Bunker buster bomb rattling is one thing, but the mantra of the peace activists, “give peace a chance,” seems to have been pretty much a last option and therefore no option at all.

United States efforts toward global dominance after WW II have a very sordid history indeed. Of course, the word “dominance” never appeared in political or diplomatic discourse or on the pages of the press. The default word was “leadership.” American “leadership,” we were told, was demanded by the rest of the world; and, however heavy the burden, however taxing the cost, the U.S. would reluctantly perform this duty thrust upon its broad shoulders.

The United States was not always the obvious choice. At the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the restructuring of the entire American industrial establishment to support the military effort in the Second World War, the American military was only the 18th largest in the world. After the war his successor, Harry Truman, was determined to maintain a large standing army and the high wartime taxes to support it. This we are told by historians he did, on the advice of his friend Senator Arthur Vandenburg, by scaring the hell out of the citizenry.

Since that time, of course, we have had the Korean “police action” and the Vietnamese “domino theory” conflagration, not to mention all the governments in the third world that we invaded, coerced, toppled, bullied or embargoed. And let’s not forget the American proxy war conducted against the Russians in Afghanistan. After all, this was a piece of cake because it was their blood and our and our Saudi friends’ treasure.

The old adage that war is hell is perhaps apropos Bradley Manning’s alleged decision to release classified documents. One does not have to be, as Madar so carefully sets forth, some crazed or tormented individual to want to help people understand just what is occurring in their name and with their silent acquiescence.

One of the strongest points of The Passion of Bradley Manning is Manning’s actual correspondence during this period. For the first time we are offered a chance to read Manning’s own words and to get an idea of what he was thinking while undertaking the actions that led to the deadly serious charges now pending against him . The emails reveal a thoughtful, intelligent and caring person with a passion to share information. He sought to educate a much wider audience, hoping that to reach the see-no-evil crowd of Americans who continue to empower a feckless leadership.

While the Obama administration has come down hard on Manning and is certain to make Julian Assange another target of its ire over its leaky ship of state, we cannot yet predict the final outcome of this latest crisis in American leadership. Daniel Ellsberg, who during the Viet Nam war era gave the “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times, today is seen as a hero by many people. Manning does not yet have and may never garner the support of liberals that Ellsberg enjoys. The final chapters have not been written on the war paradigm of modern American history. Whatever happens, Manning’s case is an important part of that history. Unquestionably, he has helped to let some fresh air into a chamber filled with fetid fumes.

You don’t have to be an anarchist to value Manning’s role in a modern American war or to appreciate Madar’s analysis of that role. Chase Madar’s thought-provoking story of this unexpected hero gives the reader the opportunity to look at the current war efforts and at anti-war work in a new way. Bradley Manning is more than a scared kid, a soldier, a patriot or a traitor. He is part of a larger picture, and in that context Madar reminds us forcefully that it is not just the war mongers who define what are and are not “American values.”