Bradley Manning obviously still believes in America, in a country that cares about the rule of law, fairness and human rights for all. His naivete might well cost him his freedom for the rest of his life.
Reading through Manning's statement at his court martial hearing last week, when he plead guilty to ten of the 22 charges facing him, it's hard not to be struck by his faith both in his fellow citizens and the military to pressure for and initiate fundamental changes in the policies that his leaks revealed. Manning clearly didn't realise how threatening his actions were to the system whose interests he was supposed to serve. Now he knows. He is up against a system for whom the beliefs that motivated his actions - if you see immorality, shine a light on it and do what you can to stop it - as the equivalent of a Stuxnet worm or ebola virus, threatening to break down the discipline and order without which the system cannot continue to function.
From analyst to enemy
It is a system whose true nature he had begun to uncover through his work as an intelligence analyst - a position Manning's recruiter recommended he pursue when he enlisted. "I told him that I was interested in geopolitical matters and information technology. He suggested that I consider becoming an intelligence analyst," he told the judge at the start of his prepared statement. After researching the position, "I assessed that my natural interest in geopolitical affairs and my computer skills would make me an excellent intelligence analyst."
Later on in his statement he elaborated on his motivations as an analyst:
I am the type of person who likes to know how things work. And, as an analyst, this means I always want to figure out the truth. Unlike other analysts in my section or other sections within the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, I was not satisfied with just scratching the surface and producing canned or cookie cutter assessments. I wanted to know why something was the way it was, and what we could do to correct or mitigate a situation.
The same concern also led him to turn over documents to Wikileaks rather than give them to the Iraq government about political activists.
Clearly, Manning did his job too well. Sifting through as much data as possible, trying to process it as "historical data" that could help him connect the dots (as he was encouraged to do) led him gradually to see that the real threat to US national security did not lie in the badlands of the Middle East and Central Asia, but rather from the organisation for which he worked. As he put it, "The more I read, the more I... began to think that the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity didn't seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world."
| Manning pleads guilty to minor charges
Seeing the unfiltered comments of American diplomats, the raw footage of American wars, and the unadorned architecture of American power was clearly too much for Manning's conscience to bear. He didn't understand that backdoor deals and criminality have always been the modus operandi of American policy, as it has been for every other global power. It's what allowed the US to murder three million Southeast Asians during the Vietnam War while sending 58,000 American soldiers to their needless deaths. It's allowed subsequent invasions from Grenada to Panama to Iraq based on nothing but lies, not to mention allowed dozens of coups, support for innumerable small wars and (counter)insurgencies, coddling brutal dictators and ignoring or abandoning oppressed people.
It's allowed a trillion dollar monster to determine everything from the contours to the capillaries of US foreign and domestic policies in precisely the same manner that the military does in a country like Egypt [AR].
Historical documents par excellence
Manning was right about the significance of the documents in his possession. They were and remain "among the more significant documents of our time revealing the true costs of war", revealing the US military's "obsess[ion] with capturing and killing human targets on lists [while] ignoring goals and missions".
But who was he, a mere private, to make such a judgment? How dare he read through the raw data of US foreign policy and decide that "these cables were a prime example of the need for more diplomacy". That job can only be performed - or rather, ignored - by his superiors, who are in a better position to know what really matters and how the system actually works.
If Manning's assumptions about how American diplomacy should work were too guileless for his own good, his assumptions about how the American public at large would respond to the revelations he enabled proved damning for his future freedom:
I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general [that] might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counter-terrorism while ignoring the human situation of the people we engaged with every day.
Perhaps Manning thought that Homeland Security's PR campaign "If you see something, say something" applied not only to potential Muslim terrorists but to everyone, including those who are sworn to "defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic [and] bear true faith and allegiance to the same", as he affirmed in his enlistment oath. Sadly, intending to provoke a public debate about policies that have caused so much suffering to Americans as well as Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and other "enemies" is considered "misconduct" that could well provoke new charges of intending to "discredit" the US military.
Abandoning Private Manning
Indeed, the judge tried to reinforce this lesson, in a very revealing exchange with Manning. After getting him to admit that his release of the documents was "prejudicial to good order and discipline and of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces", she forced him to acknowledge how his realisation could coexist with his belief that he was engaged in a moral action by releasing them.
"How can they co-exist?" she asked, to which Manning replied, "Regardless of my opinions, it's beyond my pay-grade, it's beyond my authority to make these decisions. There are channels you are supposed to go through. I didn't even look at those channels - that's not how we do business."
Not understanding the implications of his statement, the judge pushed the point, asking him if soldiers ignored the decisions of their superiors because of their own moral code. "You would have junior ranks making their own decisions until the organisation seizes up."
Guilty of revealing collateral murder
Manning clearly understood that going through normal channels would be an exercise in futility. But it wasn't just that Manning as a junior functionary was using his own moral code to ignore the orders of superiors. It was that the actions of his fellow soldiers and superiors alike violated the military's own codes of conduct and the laws of the United States. In such a situation "seizing" up was precisely what needed to happen if such policies were to have a chance of being brought under control. But it was precisely what had to be prevented if the system was to continue.
The infamous "collateral murder" video that Manning admitted leaking to Wikileaks, which depicts US Apache helicopter pilots firing upon a group of people on the ground, is a perfect example of this dynamic. The footage, and even more so the words of the pilots, are absolutely damning, as they confirm that the pilots indeed had a "blood lust" (in Manning's words) which led them to fire on a group of people, including clearly wounded men and those attending to them.
"We're trying to get permission to engage. Come on, let us shoot!" one of the soldiers shouts as he watches a van pick up the bodies. "We have a black SUV - or Bongo truck picking up the bodies. Request permission to engage." They received permission and did engage, and within moments a soldier exclaimed: "Oh yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield! Ha ha!" In fact, he'd wounded and killed more people, including children.
The deliberate shooting of anyone, combatant or civilian, in the process of attending to wounded who no longer pose an immediate threat to an opposing force, regardless of their status, is a direct violations of the Geneva conventions (particularly the First Geneva Convention) and thus of US Federal law. It is a war crime, which is precisely why the US military refused to release the video, and why Manning felt it was so important to do so.
Iraqis can't count
Bradley Manning is any military's worst nightmare - a soldier who decides to think for him or herself. The US military would much prefer soldiers like US army veteran Kayla Williams, who penned a recent Guardian op-ed describing her "ambivalence" about the occupation of Iraq but ultimately concluded that the US presence there and the deaths of her comrades were "not in vain". While it might take "a generation or more" to know whether the invasion and occupation were "worth it... I bridle instantly at suggestions that troops died in vain, for they sacrificed themselves not for policy but for their comrades-in-arms; all are remembered and honoured."
What's more, thanks to the war, Williams "learned who I am at my core, discovering previously unplumbed depths of courage. Seeing how rural Iraqis live gave me a profound appreciation of how lucky I am to live in modern America, and a rich understanding of how tremendously privileged we are."
Few soldiers who've served in combat can look back on the experience without a measure of ambivalence. What the US army and any military wants, however, is for soldiers to keep their focus on themselves. Thus for Williams Iraqis don't even enter into the calculus; they literally don't even count, except as props through which she and her fellow soldiers achieve self-discovery and learn to appreciate "how lucky I am to live in modern America" (apparently she doesn't understand that the US essentially bombed much of Iraq back into the stone age before her arrival).
Who's the real enemy?
One of Manning's most important claims is that his actions did not "aid the enemy" - a charge prosecutors want to prove despite his admission of guilt by bringing in 141 witness to prove that he did just that (a Seal team member from the bin Laden raid will supposedly testify that he found evidence that bin Laden had requested to see the documents Manning leaked as evidence of Manning's guilt).
Sadly, as Manning's Court Martial makes clear, for the US military-security machine, the most dangerous enemy whom it must protect itself against is not al-Qaeda. It's the American people, because they are the only ones who can challenge its power and hold it accountable to American and international law. It would be nice to hope that one day Americans will take this responsibility seriously, but that day appears very far off.
Manning will likely pay for his far-sightedness by spending the rest of his life in jail.
Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book, Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on 'rock and resistance and the struggle for soul' in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008.
Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.