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Truthdigger of the Week: Chelsea Manning

Military whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who is now serving a 35-year sentence for a massive leak of incriminating government files. (U.S. Army / AP)
Roisin Davis
Róisín Davis is a literary agent, writer, and editor based in New…
Roisin Davis


Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

Chelsea Manning is a patriot.

Today, on the most patriotic of days, she should be celebrated for her heroism. But unlike most Americans enjoying the Fourth of July by barbecuing or watching fireworks, Manning will spend the nation’s birthday within the dreary confines of a prison cell.

That’s because we seem to have a very slippery notion of what it means to love one’s country. Symbolized in our post-9/11 world by homicidal antiheroes like “American Sniper” Chris Kyle or misdeeds like the Patriot Act, America’s savagery is too often rendered as patriotism.

For exposing some terrible truths, Manning has endured imprisonment, torture, humiliation and the denial of basic rights and freedoms. Bringing to light America’s war crimes via the largest leak of classified information in U.S. history, she acted out of idealism. “I want people to see the truth,” she said, “because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Manning did her duty as a citizen and a soldier. She acted in the best interests of her country after witnessing grave violations on the part of the United States government, violations that contravened the Armed Forces’ Uniform Code of Military Justice, the rules in U.S. Army Field Manual 27-10 and international law.

During her 2013 trial, she described the “delightful bloodlust” an Apache helicopter crew exhibited in Baghdad in 2007 as it mowed down a crowd of civilians, which included Reuters photojournalist Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, Saeed Chmagh. The footage Manning released to WikiLeaks in 2010 revealed how the crew “dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote ‘dead bastards’ unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers.”

“I hoped that the public would be as alarmed as me,” Manning recounted of her motivations. “I wanted the American public to know that not everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan are targets that needed to be neutralized, but rather people who were struggling to live in the pressure-cooker environment of what we call asymmetric warfare. …

“After the [WikiLeaks] release, I was encouraged by the response in the media and general public. … As I hoped, others were just as troubled — if not more troubled — than me by what they saw.”

Without Manning’s act of conscience, the American public would know nothing of the extent of war crimes committed by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The widespread torture conducted by the Iraqi authorities in full knowledge of the U.S. military would have remained hidden, alongside previously unknown estimates of the number of Iraqi civilians killed at U.S. military checkpoints and the massive Iraqi civilian death toll brought about by the American invasion.

“The whistleblowers,” writes journalist Gary Younge, “are the new generation of American patriots. … Forced to choose between allegiance to the flag and uniform, and loyalty to the ideals the flag is supposed to represent and the uniform is supposed to defend, they chose the latter. Their defiance stems from the fact that, in acting as they have, they don’t believe they’ve let down America. They believe they had to act because America was letting itself down.”

Manning belongs to a proud legacy, like former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who single-handedly awakened our generation to the reality of America’s panopticon and ignited debate on civil liberties; former CIA officer John Kiriakou, whom the Obama administration imprisoned in 2013 for telling ABC News about the waterboarding and torture of detainees; the late Aaron Swartz, a hacker arrested for illegally downloading academic articles from MIT who later took his own life; Jeremy Hammond, 28, sentenced in 2013 to 10 years in federal prison for hacking the private intelligence firm Stratfor and releasing the information through WikiLeaks; former NSA officials-turned-whistleblowers Thomas Drake and William Binney; and former ethics adviser to the U.S. Department of Justice Jesselyn Radack, who defended “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.

And let’s not forget also: Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, the most decorated Marine in history, who in 1935 confirmed that American fruit companies and banks were behind Marine interventions in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua; Ronald Ridenhour, the soldier who exposed the My Lai massacre of 1968; the eight anti-war activists who in 1971 sent Congress copies of files they had stolen from an FBI office in Pennsylvania revealing J. Edgar Hoover’s illegal Cointelpro operation; and Daniel Ellsberg, who faced 115 years in prison for publicizing the Pentagon Papers.

In August 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Now 27, she could be released on parole in about seven years. Although as a recent Cosmopolitan interview explains, “She still wouldn’t consider herself free: The Army says a parole officer could supervise her until her maximum release date, 2045.”

Continuing to fight a courageous battle, this year Manning made the transition from Pfc. Bradley Manning to public life as the woman Chelsea. From solitary confinement at a military base in Virginia, she was moved to Kansas’ Fort Leavenworth, where in addition to human rights work, she has become a key advocate for LGBT, especially transgender, rights.

It is often said that “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” So on this day of American independence, let’s celebrate our whistleblowers. We like to believe that ours is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” If freedom requires truth and bravery means sacrifice, then Chelsea Manning is a patriot for our times.

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