When Bradley Manning was asked by a military judge recently if he understood what would happen if every soldier ignored their commanders in favour of their own moral code, he answered “You'd have junior ranks making their own decisions until the organisation seizes up.” He did not add, as he might have done, and as I would, is that in a post 9/11 context this might be a good thing.
The idea that soldiers are obliged to obey and carry out their duty unquestioningly, and at any cost, has been chiselled away at for over a decade now. The paradox is that the chiselling has been done by the belligerent states themselves.
Given that the US and UK have gone ahead with wars rejected by their citizens, the western soldier has become a distant figure – alienated from the people by the deliberate actions of his government. A 2008 report in this country, headed by Gordon Brown and Quentin Davies MP, laments the political distance between the army and the population and lays out a plan to mitigate this gulf.
But in 2013, the top-down effort to shade support for the soldiers into support for the wars has failed. The only success, if you can call it that, has been to bolster a marginal and blinkered hero-cult - anti-war feeling is still virtually hegemonic. This is because the re-branding of the wars and the people who fight them does not address the underlying issue: cowardly military assaults against poor nations, carried out without a mandate.
Soldier’s keeping their mouths shut keeps things in the sorry condition we see today. Thankfully, just doing what you are told is not wholly the theme of the age and Manning’s actions reflect this. Soldiers, long held to operate on bonds of trust and fellowship, have found themselves on the leading edge of a corrupt and grubby political project in the Middle East. Given the absence of moral leadership since the Twin Towers fell, who can a soldier possibly turn to but himself if he wants to see the right thing done?
Manning seems to recognise this. Having seen the reality of, in his case, Iraq, he wanted there to be a "debate" about the war. He also seems to have recognized that for a constructive debate to take place and for progress to be made, citizens need to actually know what was happening. On the evidence being presented, sending Manning to Iraq was as close as the US ever got to delivering progress and democracy to that still stricken country
It’s unclear if the New York Times and Washington Post, to whom he apparently first took his information, misread his messages to them as a hoax; I truly hope that was the case. If they purposefully ignored him then it amounts to a betrayal of two vital, connected and badly tarnished things: journalism and democracy.
Hawks, chicken-hawks and brass-hat generals will mewl that democracy is not the job of a soldier. Yet given that they daily hack away at anything which breaches their view of what we citizens are allowed to know, there is nobody better positioned then the military insider to counter them.
Manning has wrestled back something of enormous value to us. And he’s done it at huge risk. Cowards and traitors, we should recall, are not renowned for facing down decades in prison on points of principle – which he must have known was on the cards. His is the territory of actual heroism. If there has been one episode in the War on Terror which truly represents the idea of a selfless soldier, it is the courage of the Bradley Manning.
If our only other option is to leave democracy in the hands of people who have betrayed it repeatedly, I’ll take my chances with Wikileaks and the quiet young man now facing decades in jail.