War Against War: A Meditation on Bradley Manning's Mind
“Bradley Manning’s Mind.” I took a deep breath when I read that title over this brief item recently posted on Truthdig:
“An investigative video created by The Guardian examines alleged WikiLeaker Bradley Manning’s psychological condition before he was dispatched to Iraq, concluding that he was probably not fit for overseas duty and that security at his station was remarkably lax. The additional reporting provides a fuller picture of Manning’s motivations—and discloses just how easy it was for him to hijack all that classified ‘intelligence.’ ”
Without our defense, a prisoner such as Bradley Manning is defenseless against the media, the military and the government. We can at least spread the word about the Bradley Manning Support Network.
There has already been online discussion among gay folks and the queer left about the “Frontline” show that pathologized Manning, and now The Guardian video report features a soldier with blurred face saying Manning pissed in his pants and curled up on his bunk “in a fetal position.” Maybe he did, after being repeatedly insulted and assaulted by fellow soldiers, by the account of this same anonymous informant.
Why is Manning’s mind the only relevant site of weakness, disability and pathology in the big media stories so far? Why not the sorry condition of our corporate state passing as a democratic republic? And maybe the “Frontline” program, which was distributed through the Public Broadcasting Service, and The Guardian should have given us a fuller picture of the motivations that drove their own reporters to recycle the official military narrative about Bradley Manning.
If I take a detour from the very mind and person of Manning, I assure readers we’ll return to him later; by this roundabout route we may view other figures in the landscape more closely, figures who stand tall in the light of a setting sun and who throw long shadows over the republic.
What is the “normal” psychology of soldiers entitled to beat up someone because he’s not much above 5 feet tall and gay? Why not question what the hell is in the minds of “progressives” who will vote by rote for Barack Obama in 2012, even though he just signed an extension of the Patriot Act? Obama was far away from Washington when he used a high-tech version of the autopen (invented by Thomas Jefferson) to ratchet up surveillance of potential traitors and terrorists. In this way the corporate state casts a dumbfounding spell over the Democratic Party, but Obama’s keenest partisans can always claim that the devil made him do it. Necessity is thus the mother of “pragmatism.” The Patriot Act truly makes patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels.
A shame, really, that only Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., held out so stubbornly against the bipartisan majority on the issue of individual rights. Above all, gun rights! As Corey Boles reported in Dow Jones Newswires on May 27, “Before they moved to a vote to finalize the legislation, lawmakers first had to deal with a Paul amendment that would have excluded gun sales from law enforcement officials’ ability to monitor business transactions. Paul said this was a violation of individual rights protected by the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
Ultimately, 22 senators joined Paul in voting against the bill. (In the House of Representatives, 250 voted “yes” and 153 voted “no.”) Rand Paul is an Ayn Randian in the realm of economics, and he argued in Congress that demanding “the right to health care” means demanding the “slavery” of nurses and doctors. The “principled” opposition to the Patriot Act extension was thus spearheaded by a true believer in Ayn Rand, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet the erosion of civil liberties is one ripe consequence of the very class system defended in Congress by Rand Paul, and by his “libertarian” father, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas. This erosion has advanced under both Republican and Democratic presidents. If an officially Libertarian president was elected, the real cost of the “free market” would still be gated communities for the rich and a strip-mined planet for the poor.
What about the faction that passes for the left wing of the Democrats in Congress, and what about their loyal base of voters? Did they lose their wits when the blade of a guillotine dropped all at once? No, on the contrary, a whole generation of “progressive” frogs got boiled alive one degree at a time, so they just had the strength for a croaking chorus while they thought they were getting an uncomfortably hot bath. And then that Jeffersonian autopen was wielded by the candidate of “hope and change,” a fine finishing touch to the slow crash and burn of the American republic.
Already some “progressives” are claiming the next election will be a referendum on racism, and no doubt they will be right since every big election in this country is always about both race and class. But it does not follow that Obama’s loyalists are thinking clearly about the racial construction of class politics, or that the first black president has the nerve to command his generals or to challenge the corporate state. In this respect, Obama is not much different than any other Clintonista would have been in the Oval Office, including Hillary Clinton. The testy relations between Obama and the Clintons come down to party faction fights, and not to deep disagreements on domestic and foreign policy.
The refusal to think clearly about class politics will lead us instead to think that a shattered “glass ceiling” in a corporation or in Congress or in the White House is as good or better than an uprising of class-conscious workers from below. That is precisely the level of class consciousness among so many status-conscious cultural entrepreneurs, Ivy League political imbeciles and Democratic Party apparatchiks.
Once upon a time, Bill Clinton became “our first black president,” and white liberals had full permission to be the echo chamber of words that were launched in public by novelist Toni Morrison, an African-American, writing in The New Yorker in October 1998:
Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
And to that list we must add that Bill Clinton was also the president who pushed policies that would have made loyal liberals cry bloody murder if he had been a Republican, including the deregulation of big banks and high finance, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and tearing down some of the last New Deal protections for mothers raising children on welfare. By Morrison’s count of black presidents, Obama should be our second; but under Morrison’s assessment, Obama never would have been elected. Clinton won many black votes by playing precisely upon the tropes of blackness (just as Morrison claimed), and Obama won many white votes by playing upon the tropes of middle-class prosperity, managerial wisdom and upward mobility.
In reality, both Clinton and Obama are deeply loyal to “free market” orthodoxies, and loyal as well to “pragmatism” in foreign policy. The real cost in blood and public funds comes from below, however: not from the very small minority who rise to the heights of the ruling class, but from the vast majority of working people who will never advance to a job on Wall Street or in the White House. Many millions of working people are still in shock after losing jobs, homes and any sense that this country offers them a decent social contract.
Now let’s revisit Bradley Manning, born in Crescent, Okla. (population now about 1,400). His father, Brian, had been in the Navy as an intelligence analyst. Militarism is never simply a mechanical production line of soldiers; for the assembly line depends on a great deal of ambivalence, subjectivity and uneasy loyalty at the cellular level of the neighborhood and family. In public interviews, Brian Manning seems puzzled, disappointed and frustrated that his son did not live in the military by the code of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Whatever Bradley Manning was telling his friends in person and online, the fellow soldiers who subjected him to faggot-baiting and bullying thought he was just asking for it.
Yet, as Brian Manning himself now admits with a kind of pained recognition, the father bullied his son into joining the Army. Bradley Manning became a soldier, in Brian’s words, “after I twisted his arm. He didn’t want to join. But he needed structure in his life, he was aimless. I knew in my own life that joining the Navy was the only thing that gave me structure, and everything’s been fine since then.” What may have given structure to the father destroyed the son.
This is the closed circle of our national and personal fictions. But these are fictions with real force. Otherwise our vast national military cemeteries would cease filing away dead young men and women in neat, endless rows. Year after year, war after war, we witness the destruction not only of the enemy but also of our own social order; and we create the kind of social mayhem that makes scared and humiliated people long for the structure of fundamentalist faith, or the structure of a familiar and brutal class system, or the structure of uniforms and military music and the best weapons money can buy. If we contemplated these fields of dead soldiers without illusions, our hearts would break and we might go mad; if we recognized at long last the greed and presumption of the ruling class, then we might hear and know the real burden of these words, which the poet Wilfrid Owen wrote before dying as a soldier and an officer in World War I:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est,
Pro patria mori.
[Editor’s note: The Latin phrase translates roughly as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”]
If Manning’s mind was fractured, then (as the paradox is known in the Latin liturgy), felix culpa! If guilty as charged, then Manning is one of the people who helped fracture the state secrets of an anti-democratic bipartisan regime that keeps racking up and tracking down ever more political “suspects”– even while career politicians carry out imperial wars with ever more expensive high-tech weapons. The “intelligence” that Manning is charged with passing to WikiLeaks turned out to be one of the inspirations for the Arab rebellions across the Middle East and North Africa; and there has been a real earthquake in the fields of mass media and journalism, with aftershocks following almost weekly. If the traditional guardians of the daily news so deeply resent Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, that is because they long ago traded away integrity and independence in the sly scramble for “access” to power, press conferences and photo opportunities.
Show me a human being without fractures and I’ll show you a robot. The well-adjusted and uniformed creature sitting at a computer can now pick out targets on command, and thousands of miles away a drone can direct missiles at a bunker (presumably) filled with terrorists (presumably). And yet these presumptions have proved false whenever the missiles drop on Afghan wedding guests, or any other “collateral” civilians unlucky enough to be in the vicinity of intended targets
As Laura King of the Los Angeles Times reported from Kabul on May 29, “A new dispute over civilian deaths erupted Sunday when Afghan officials claimed an errant NATO airstrike had killed 14 people, women and children among them.” Afghans in the area claimed that of the 14 killed, 12 were children and two were women. And for those with strong stomachs, there is a video now online showing a truckload of dead children, and a father holding two dead infants in his arms. (See the video and King’s report by clicking here.)
Whatever psychic fractures and subjective states of mind may be featured in the mass media’s Bradley Manning story, there is also an objective social fracture that runs right through our population. That is why different groups of people see and understand honor, treason and loyalty so differently. No doubt some gung-ho, all-American folks (of all sexual persuasions, some in uniform) will find no problem with the “Frontline” show or with The Guardian video coverage. But people who have spent much of their lives building movements of resistance will not be viewing and hearing the ready-made psychoanalysis of Bradley Manning with uncritical minds. Some of us even remember the days when gay activists fought the “expert” knowledge enshrined in such a scripture as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
If by any chance I turn up on a “suspect” list at the airport this June when I try to fly to Europe, no doubt the agents who guide me to a fluorescent cube will have a neat file ready for reference, listing the dozen or more times I enjoyed the hospitality of the state behind bars. (See footnote at the end of this article.) And perhaps this file will be padded with a “psychological profile.” So yes, I confess that I have my own personal and political reasons for defending Manning.
Obama told the whole nation, “He broke the law.” Well, say no more. Obama was once a teacher of constitutional law, but now he has become the Public Prosecutor in Chief against a prisoner, Bradley Manning, who had already been stripped naked under “suicide watch” in a military prison. Under increasing international protest and pressure, the authorities later transferred Manning from Quantico, Va., to Leavenworth, Kan.—by all accounts, a milder regime.
Under such conditions, Manning’s mind may truly fracture. If they keep him in jail for 10, 20 or 30 years—or for life under the charge of treason—yes, he may truly lose his mind. Or else he must cultivate patience and fierce clarity, even to survive day by day. Predictably, some folks on the far right (including that preacher of capitalism and Christian love, Mike Huckabee) have demanded Manning’s execution.
Concluding that Manning “was probably not fit for overseas duty” is breathtaking! Yes, this oracular wisdom comes from “progressive” venues such as “Frontline” and The Guardian, and was then paraphrased on Truthdig. As Susie Day, a lesbian writer who is no friend of empire, wrote to me, “The whole fakakta-osity of this b’cast wasn’t only showing Manning as infantilized and unstable; look at the ‘friends’ they got to talk about him—and his father’s the one who belongs in prison; he obviously has such contempt for a kid who, surrounded by such dolts, did well to survive.” Manning has indeed done more practical good in the fight against war and empire than the great majority of “pragmatic” bleeding hearts will ever do by voting as instructed by MSNBC, The Nation and deadbeat Democrats in Washington.
On May 27 I wrote back to Susie Day about the “Frontline” show, “If there were hours enough, I might write a short Truthdig piece pointing out that plenty of queer viewers (and smart straight folks) will NOT have seen Manning through that lens.” Little did I know then that the “Frontline” view of Manning would then become the basic story for a video reporter at The Guardian! When I got that piece of news through Truthdig, then I was obliged to make time to write this article—longer than I first had in mind, but I am now moved by further evidence and by indignation. And by real concern that Manning is being reduced to a figure viewed through the keyhole of the mass media. Indeed, The Guardian video opens with a s-l-o-o-o-w pan of Bradley Manning at a party full of hipsters and computer hackers, where he looks like a clean-cut choirboy.
That bit of film was lifted from a video taken by someone at the party, and became one of the most telling moments in the “Frontline” story. An editorial decision was made at “Frontline” to slow down the moment when Manning looks at the camera and flirtatiously passes his hand over his hair. Given the slow-motion treatment and the voice-over commentary, Manning’s gender-bending bit of fun was then reframed as another piece in the puzzle of his troubled mind. Indeed, this becomes another piece of evidence that Manning was “unfit” to serve in the military. The Guardian simply could not resist opening its own story with the same slow-motion panning of Manning.
But is Manning truly “guilty as charged”? We do not really know for sure. After all, he has not yet had his “day in court,” though he has already done hard time in prison. If Bradley Manning broke ranks with war and empire, then thank God (and all the fairies in Bradley’s bonnet) that he was truly fit to tear down the public veil of illusions concerning Alpha Male high-tech killers and the commander in chief.
What makes any person “fit” to win the White House nowadays? From now till kingdom come—if we, the people, are too jaded or too distracted to care—the job description should be spelled out in bold legal print: “Only social climbers willing to rise on a mountain of corpses need apply.”
The first political group I ever joined was the War Resisters League. When I later became a socialist (after my anarchist years as a teenager), this call to action worked its way under my skin as I pondered the real implications of a class-conscious fight against imperial adventures of all kinds: “War against war!” What does war against war really mean? Not one bloody vote and not one bloody cent for the parties of war and empire! That is, for starters, the negative program.
War against war does not mean we volunteer to be shot down by offering the government the provocation of taking up weapons. Violence is an abyss, and we do not show courage by jumping into an open grave. Resistance, however, can take a thousand forms that do not depend on brute force. The war against war must therefore be grounded in ethics, and guided by daily enlightenment. War against war means this government can no longer depend—smugly and brutally—on the uncontested consent of the governed.
A class-conscious struggle against the corporate state is also a struggle against war and empire. If this government makes the free election of real democrats and of socialists impossible, then we, the people, have the right and duty to elect ourselves as public citizens; and to begin creating a new republic founded upon peace, social wealth, ethical obligation, ecological sanity, and the solidarity of labor across all borders. Every workplace is potentially a free council of workers; every street and neighborhood is potentially a public space of freedom.
In Europe, many thousands of working people have already taken to the streets against the austerity programs imposed by parties of the earnest right and the bogus left. What we may call the political warm spring in Europe may yet become a hot summer. In Greece, workers and students waged a general strike, and in Spain they still occupy public squares—recently braving an assault by riot police swinging shields and truncheons against citizens who peacefully linked arms in a mass sit-down protest in Barcelona. We, too, have a history of urban general strikes in this country, and of class-conscious struggles against war and corporate rule. This government depends on our obedience, but our lives depend on open rebellion. Start small and start now.
Footnote: When I speculate about possible detention at an airport, that may suggest paranoia even to some readers who consider themselves civil libertarians. Anyone with a political arrest record (mine is pretty long) has to consider the possibility. And in fact reality is way ahead of my speculation, as a report from Courage to Resist will confirm (click here). That story goes back to November 2010 and concerns an associate of Bradley Manning, David House, who hopes Manning gets a fair trial. House, who is also associated with the Bradley Manning Support Network, was detained at O’Hare Airport, and his laptop computer and other electronic gear were confiscated. The ACLU argued that House’s First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated.