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Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman: Bradley Manning - the prisoner who exposes American hypocrisy

If we had no right to see US helicopter pilots gunning down civilians, what right do we have to know anything?

After a year of unrivalled newsiness, Time's list of 2011's 100 most influential people looks, at first glance, a little odd. If not demented. For reasons which evade me, the magazine's readers have voted Rain, a South Korean singer and actor, at No.1. Susan Boyle is at No.3, just the 43 places above Barack Obama.

All lists of the kind are diverting gibberish, and this one more than most. Yet it does have a saving grace in the form of a cute juxtaposition. At No.8 is Bradley Manning, the US Army's whistleblower supreme whose pre-trial hearing to determine whether he must face a court martial is currently being held in Maryland. Posthumously ranked at No.9, meanwhile, is Christopher Hitchens.

Clearly the Hitch would have been higher had he had the wit to die a week earlier. But from his heavenly berth, he may look down with pleasure on the symmetry, and asymmetry, of being bracketed with the man whose leaking of military and diplomatic confidences gave WikiLeaks its most lustrous scoop.

Although Hitchens was a fervent advocate of America's imperialist adventurism where Manning may be its most effective critic, much conjoined them. Both sons of strict and remote fathers, they developed a potent antipathy towards authority figures up to and including the Creator. Long before Hitchens wrote God Is Not Great, the clever, opinionated and atheistic Manning was refusing to do any Bible-related homework.

Both were often described as contrarian, and driven to do their finest work by hatred of injustice. And both were intimately acquainted with torture. Where Hitchens chose to undergo water-boarding, Manning's exposure to less blatant but barely less repellent forms of torture was involuntary.

Before public pressure won him removal to a less muscular prison, he was housed at Quantico, a Marine base in Virginia, where he was marooned in solitary confinement for 23 hours each day, deprived of sleep, forced to stand naked during inspections, and denied his glasses so that he was in effect blind. Barring being dragged along by a dog collar, he might as well have been a victim of his colleague Lindie England in Abu Ghraib.

You need never have been a constitutional law professor, as Time's No. 46 was before his pledge to end the maltreatment of Iraq war-related detainees helped send him to the Oval Office, to know that such elegances fall under the "cruel and unusual punishment" passage in the Eighth Amendment. Agreeing that is the easy bit.

The harder bit is deciding whether, in revealing some of the unlovelier aspects of US military endeavours, Manning is a hero, a traitor, or a confused, lonely, nomadic superhacker with father issues and a dash of save-the-world-from-itself Narcissism in the Julian Assange mould.

Evidently, Manning had psychiatric problems, as his superiors knew before he committed what the inevitable court martial will inevitably conclude were crimes demanding a long spell inside (the fact that no one in the White House, Pentagon or State Department can cite a scintilla of actual damage to US interests resulting from the leaks will not trump the charms of deterrence). Before the intelligence officer copied the documents, he emailed his immediate supervisor in Iraq warning that his gender problems and resultant emotional distress were impairing his ability to analyse Shia militant attacks. He even enclosed a snap of himself in women's clothing.

M*A*S*H fans will be reminded of Corporal Klinger, who cross-dressed in the futile hope of a discharge from the Korean war. No officer would have let Klinger near classified material. That Manning was permitted free access seems extraordinary, if not almost a type of entrapment.

Then again, there is no overstating the abject incompetence of the US military, which, after decades of insanely counter-productive wars, one has come to take on trust. Manning's most conspicuous act of heroism, along with publicising the corruption that helped to wash away the Tunisian regime, was exposing the insouciant brutality to which, in a less dramatic form, he has since been subjected himself. If the world had no right to see footage of US helicopter pilots gunning down Baghdad civilians with the giggly whoopings of teenage video gamers, what right does it have to know anything at all?

American hypocrisy in committing atrocious crimes in freedom's name is, like that of any empire, too deeply embedded to be abandoned by any one person. Years after the Hitch exposed Henry Kissinger's vileness in Vietnam, the US was still slaughtering the innocent for kicks. What Manning exposed will not prevent it happening again, possibly before too long in Iran should a Republican become the US's 45th President.

So it is no shock that what the 43rd President did in Iraq, his successor has been unable magically to undo. But it is a grief to anyone clinging gamely to residual admiration that Obama, with arguably more influence on such affairs than even Susan Boyle, was content to sit idly by while a fragile young man of 5ft 2in was kept in Jacob Marley chains on rare outings from his cell, and kept in darkness without his specs, for casting light on a war whose poisonous spirit will survive its official conclusion last week so long as Bradley Manning remains a political prisoner.