Bradley Manning: Enlisting the enlightenment

Pfc Manning’s trial shows there may be danger in using reason to think for ourselves.

Rally Held In Support Of Bradley Manning
Manning's plight has attracted widespread attention and popular support [Getty]

More than three years after his arrest in May 2010, the trial of Bradley Manning has finally begun. Manning has already admitted that he passed information to WikiLeaks about US military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan and about US diplomatic embassies. Speaking at a pre-trial hearing in late February, Manning said he thought that the information about the counter-insurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “would have enormous value to the American public”. He also said that he had hoped that it would “spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general”.

Similarly, Manning said he leaked diplomatic reports from US embassies around the world because he wanted Americans to know what was being done in their name:

“The more I read, the more I was fascinated with the way that we dealt with other nations and organisations. I also began to think that the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity that didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world… I came to the conclusion that this was the type of information that should become public.”

Manning said that he had taken care to ensure that none of the information he gave to WikiLeaks could damage the United States. When he came across the diplomatic cables, he only passed on files that had already been made available to a wide number of individuals within the State Department and elsewhere. 

No private advantage

If I am going to argue that Bradley Manning behaved, and continues to behave, in an enlightened fashion, I need to explain what I mean quite carefully. Enlightenment has always attracted more than its fair share of flashy frauds. In the past decade, supporters of financial sector deregulation and of US aggression overseas – often the same people – have raided the dressing-up box for 18th century clothing. Enlightenment has become, if not the last refuge of the scoundrel, a useful cliché of the reactionary.

According to its greatest philosopher, Immanuel Kant, enlightenment is “the process of leaving a state of self-induced immaturity”. We remain immature as long as we are unable – or unwilling – to reason without the guidance of an external authority. Once we do without the “dogmas and formulas” prepared by others, and judge matters for ourselves, we become enlightened.

Kant did not think that enlightenment and “public security and the unity of the state” were necessarily in conflict. In certain circumstances there can be no debate. A soldier, for example, cannot question his orders when in action. He must simply obey. But Kant argues that this cannot prevent the same soldier from “making an assessment of wrong-doing and mistakes in the military or from presenting this assessment to the public for them to judge for themselves”. The distinction that matters is between the public and private use of reason. We can and must accept certain constraints in our private life as employees, says Kant, so long as we can also speak publicly “as a scholar before the reading public”.

Manning’s assessment of WikiLeaks as being “almost academic in nature” is worth mentioning in this context, as is the fact that Manning was so upset by his discovery that 15 people detained by the Iraqi Federal Police had done nothing more than publish a “scholarly critique” of the Iraqi government. This was, he said in an online conversation before his arrest, “the thing that got me most”. 

Inside Story Americas – Bradley Manning: a whistleblowing hero?

There are other, more radical enlightenments than those described by Kant. But let us consider Bradley Manning’s actions in light of Kant’s conservative, painfully responsible version. Manning decided to do what he did because he independently reached the conclusion that it would be morally wrong for him to remain silent. He decided that the voting public should know what he – and thousands of soldiers and diplomats – knew about the foreign entanglements of the United States. At no point did he seek private advantage from what he was doing. He also took considerable pains to ensure that the material contained nothing that would endanger his fellow soldiers or damage US interests. He tried as best he could to ensure that the exercise of public reason did not cause him to betray his private responsibilities as a soldier.

Most tellingly, Manning does not shy away from these private responsibilities. According to the New York Times, when the judge “pressed Private Manning to explain how he could admit that his actions were wrong if his motivation was the ‘the greater good’, Private Manning replied: ‘Your Honour, regardless of my opinion or my assessment of documents such as these, it’s beyond my pay grade – it’s not my authority to make these decisions'”. At considerable cost to himself Manning conforms almost precisely to the Kantian model of enlightenment.

Manning accepts that what he did was contrary to the regulations of the institution to which he belonged. In the end, his reasoned conscience and those regulations came into conflict and he made the choice that he did. He does not pretend that the decision was simple, or that he is, despite the overwhelming public importance of the material he sent to WikiLeaks, blameless. One does not have to agree with his decision to recognise its character. His position is enlightened in the precise sense outlined by Kant, in that he acknowledges the claims of private and public reason, while insisting on the primacy of the latter.

The surveillance state

The authorities very much want to see Manning punished. Kant would recognise the impulse. General immaturity remains “almost second nature” because the authorities take great care to persuade us that enlightenment is dangerous and difficult: “The guardians make their cattle stupid and take pains to prevent them from taking a step on their own… Then they show them how dangerous it is to try to walk unaided.” The US government is charging Manning under the Espionage Act to show us how dangerous it is to think for ourselves. They create the peril that they then ascribe to free thought.

New technology only raises the stakes for our modern guardians. Manning describes in his statement how he put a rewritable CD in the cargo pocket of his Army Combat Uniform and walked out of his workplace with what he calls “two of the most significant documents of our time”. It is all too easy for an individual to put vast amounts of information before the reading (and viewing) public. An example must be made of Manning, to discourage anyone else from thinking that the public good should take precedence over the interests of powerful institutions.

This places a certain obligation on us, if we want to make any claim to be enlightened. Manning thought for himself, and acted in the light of his reason. As a result we know more than we would otherwise have done about crimes committed in our name, with our money. If we stand by in bovine serenity while the private law of the military and the state takes its course, we make it much easier for our guardians to keep us in a state of permanent immaturity.

Our workplaces are becoming much more tightly monitored, more rigidly conformist. The surveillance state reaches even further into our lives. But we still have some power to shape events. To insist on the supremacy of public reason is to protect ourselves from the deliberate organisation of intellectual immaturity. So let us say this as clearly and as loudly as we can, to each other and to our guardians, who we can be sure are listening: Bradley Manning has been amply punished for any private wrongdoing and should be released at once, with thanks for his public service.

There is something else, something simpler, something more generous. Bradley Manning wanted to weaken the hold of the dogmas and slogans that keep us intellectually imprisoned. For his pains he finds himself behind bars. He tried to help us live freely. We should return the favour.

Note: The full text of Bradley Manning’s pre-trial statement, transcribed by Alexa O’Brien, can be read here.

Dan Hind is the author of several books, including The Threat to Reason and Maximum Republic.