What Makes Chelsea Manning a Hero?

On Wednesday, July 21, members of the Facebook group savebradley encouraged supporters to change their profile pictures to say “Google Bradley Manning.” The group hopes to raise public interest in the US Army soldier who was arrested in connection to the appearance of classified material on the website Wikileaks.

The material that Manning is in trouble for leaking includes footage of American helicopter crews eagerly gunning down Iraqi civilians, including the occupants of a van attempting to carry away wounded people. The giggling murderers caught on tape do not appear to have suffered any official consequences, but the soldier who exposed the killings to public scrutiny has been arrested.

Manning’s increasing disillusionment with the Army was punctuated by episodes including her discovery that Iraqis had been arrested for criticizing corruption in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. After she brought the issue to her officers she was told to shut up and get more detainees. Eventually, in the face of court martial and the harshest “military justice,” Manning allegedly decided to release classified information to Wikileaks.

Problems arose when she discussed her actions with the wrong person. Adrian Lamo, deciding to take the side of occupation and murder cover-ups, provided investigators with records of communications in which Manning allegedly discussed her law-breaking.

So Manning felt a need to talk. Maybe even to brag to someone. This was a tactical error that doesn’t make her actions any less honorable. Are people only to act selflessly and negate pride and ambition? Nobody meets this standard. Manning just failed to exercise proper judgment.

Detractors have tried to invalidate Manning’s actions by claiming that she had psychological problems or saying that she was in trouble for assaulting another soldier. If someone is unable to hold herself together while figuring out the right thing to do, it only shows that she wasn’t strong enough to prevail all of the time against forces that yanked at her conscience. And who is rational all of the time anyway?

As for allegations of assault, Manning was in a profession with the explicit purpose of doing violence. If she used violence inappropriately, the best thing to do would be to try to make restitution and redeem herself. Exposing the violence the system tries to hide seems a good step towards this goal.

Why shouldn’t Manning have been angry at the system and those knowingly complicit in it? If oppression wasn’t so infuriating, it might never be fought against.

Everybody must deal with stress and everybody makes mistakes. A hero is not someone without weakness. A hero is someone who manages to do the right thing in spite of her weaknesses.

Manning realized the tyranny of an organization she played an active part in. Instead of force-feeding herself more propaganda or eating her gun, she did something positive about it.

As Henry David Thoreau said in Civil Disobedience, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then?”

Chelsea Manning did not resign her conscience to her officers or to policy makers.

Her moral choice provides an example for others to look to. If more soldiers, commanders, and politicians took responsibility for their actions and honestly evaluated the claims of authority that have been battered into them since birth, the world would be much better.

Holding heroes to an unrealistic standard of perfection means idolizing lies. The truth is, nobody is that great. Some overcome their flaws to do great things. When Chelsea Manning found that she was complicit in the violent suppression of freedom, she did the best she could to make things right.

And now she sits in a jail cell while those who make the policies of death sleep comfortably.

Note: This article was written before Chelsea Manning publically announced her preferred name and pronouns. The article has been updated, but text regarding the Facebook campaign was not altered.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory