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Chelsea Manning’s Existential Threat to American Innocence

You know the story: a court-martialed soldier of an unpopular war granted clemency as the very last act of a U.S. president amid great public controversy.

I refer, of course, to Lt. William Calley, the soldier of the Vietnam War who on March 16, 1968 led the systematic slaughter of nearly five hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians—women, children, the elderly—in the hamlet that Americans called My Lai 4. Not everyone approved, but Nixon’s last-minute pardon of the war criminal was much less contentious than the war criminal’s court-martial and conviction in the first place. Grassroots support for the lieutenant sprang up throughout the country, led not just by George Wallace and Loretta Lynn, but also with an official declaration by the New Jersey state legislature and vocal solidarity from the up-and-coming governor of Georgia, one James Earl Carter. As a general rule, the United States is considerably more forgiving of its war criminals than its whistleblowers and truth-tellers. Though difficult to measure, it’s probably the case that Daniel Ellsberg never had the kind of popular support commanded by Lt. Calley.

Pardoning Calley was essential for American security or, more specifically, the security of our self-image as a good nation that sends good soldiers abroad to do good things. Anyone and anything that would put a dent in this amour-propre is a threat to be dealt with harshly. The United States is hardly unique in this respect, as John Tirman has found in The Deaths of Others, his study of foreign civilian casualties and the various ways that the United States has denied, minimized, ignored, or deflected them.

Pardoning Calley was essential for American security or, more specifically, the security of our self-image as a good nation that sends good soldiers abroad to do good things.

It was violating this self-willed (and thoroughly bogus) innocence that was Private Chelsea Manning’s unforgivable crime. The young soldier had been deployed to Iraq, and the horrid things she saw in Iraq should of course have stayed in Iraq. True, none of the hundreds of thousands of documents she released to WikiLeaks in 2010 was Top Secret—a security clearance held by 1.4 million people by the way—and in her long court martial no concrete evidence could be produced to show actual harm to any soldier or civilian, with the possible exception of one Ethiopian journalist, mentioned in the diplomatic cables, who swiftly found political asylum in the United States. Yet many of the pols and pundits who backed the Iraq War, the Afghan escalation, Obama’s drone strikes, and then the Libya War suddenly became gushers of humanitarian sympathy for the purely hypothetical victims they imagined had been harmed by this young private. Manning was the reckless one, not themselves. How dare she?

War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography—that at least used to be the case. But when Nixon ended the draft in 1973 this bullseye epigram (shakily attributed to Ambrose Bierce) was drained of much of its truth-value; an all-volunteer military places fewer burdens on the households of elites, the upper-middle class, and the opinion class. Bush-Cheney further distanced the reality of war by removing its fiscal burden—waging two wars simultaneously with a massive tax cut, a first in human history. And now, with drones making warfare possible without the possibility for a single U.S. casualty, war is even more abstract and far-removed, and the jus ad bellum threshold sinks ever lower for the use of deadly force. That the secrecy of these wars must be tightly guarded is not just a matter of an unchecked executive branch, but also an article of faith in Congress and much of the judiciary. Leaks are an affront to the experts who dedicate entire careers to keep this machinery running smoothly.

This discomfort with the leaks has spilled over even into the liberal defenses of Manning commutation from the liberal center-right (Brookings’ Lawfare blog) and the center-left (Amy Davidson in the New Yorker). Welcome as they are, these defenses of Obama’s decision carefully avoid mentioning the leaks themselves, making no case for their positive value, despite the fact that every major print media outlet in the world has run dozens if not hundreds of stories based on their revelations. Instead, the rationale for clemency is one of individual psychology: Private Manning was in a very bad place at the time of the criminal act. Of course the same could be said of most other prisoners, but no matter.

Knowledge of U.S. warmaking remains obscene in the purest sense: it cannot be looked at in mainstream politics. As one scholar deadpanned at last year’s meeting of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, “The more I know, the less relevant I am.” What toehold can new knowledge about U.S. foreign policy find on the sheer ignorance propagated by mainstream media? American statecraft revolves around chimeras, myths, and mirages: “energy independence,” the eradication of terrorism (the tactic), widespread resentment of “foreign aid” (which constitutes less than one percent of the federal budget, and is oddly combined with a lavish subsidy for a wealthy nation openly committing ethnic cleansing, our “important ally” Israel). Somewhere along the line national security has become a “cultural issue” virtually untethered to any rational cost-benefit risk calculus, and it takes more than new data to change culture. New knowledge like that from Manning’s leaks carries little catalytic power absent a high degree of political organization. This is true at the highest level; in former CIA analyst Paul Pillar’s study of intelligence and statecraft, bringing important information to policy discussions typically results not in more intelligent policies but in politicized intelligence.

If new knowledge can’t change politics, it does have the terrible power to pollute our national innocence, or rather, ignorance.

But if new knowledge can’t change politics, it does have the terrible power to pollute our national innocence, or rather, ignorance. Intellectuals badly need to understand ignorance. It’s not just a vacant lot prime for development but very often something jealously fenced off with barbed wire, not even empty space but something solid, opaque and very dense. We have deep and conflicting cultural attitudes about knowledge and ignorance. At the beginning of one widely read book, the entire plot is set in motion by a nice young couple getting evicted from their garden apartment because they dare to partake of forbidden knowledge, though toward the end there’s a nice punch line that “the truth will set you free.” La ignorancia es atrevida in the words of nineteenth-century Argentine writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento: Ignorance is shameless and its in-your-face brass impregnable. As public intellectual Chris Rock has pointed out with undue specificity about his own ethnic group, there’s nothing that a man likes better than not knowing something.

The will for ignorance was homicidally strong over Saddam Hussein’s fictional weapons of mass destruction. It overwhelmed the critical analyses of the evidence that unmasked—among other claims—Colin Powell’s cut-and-paste case for war at the U.N. almost in real time. Where people stand today on Manning in large part depends on where they stood fourteen years ago on Iraq. Today nearly every Republican—as well as the conservative Clintonite half of the Democratic Party who eagerly backed the Iraq Invasion—is gnashing their molars over Obama’s act of whistleblower clemency. (While I think Manning deserved a full pardon with restitution, it was still politically courageous and controversial of Obama to commute her sentence.) Last Tuesday, CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper had William Kristol, an original Iraq-invasion propagandist, condemn the commutation; increasingly hawkish Democratic Senator Bob Menendez expressed his pursed-up alarm and disapproval to Wolf Blitzer. (Circle of life: it may soon be Manning’s turn to opine on whether Menendez is worthy of federal clemency given that the New Jersey senator’s battle against a federal corruption indictment is not going so hot.)

But now, after nearly seven years of confinement, Chelsea Manning is as free as Don Rumsfeld, free as Dick Cheney. WikiLeaks, for its part, now schizophrenically flickers between publishing worthwhile news items and peddling right-wing conspiracy theories like the “Pizzagate” sex panic, a tragic lapse from Enlightenment heroes to Fox-friendly conspiracy cult. And it is anyone’s guess in which direction U.S. foreign policy will lurch under President Trump. The poobahs and pundits of U.S. foreign policy have learned nothing from the Iraq debacle, blooded together in mutual protection over their shared catastrophic judgment. Our foreign policy discourse remains as narrow and as debased as ever, even as Manning’s leaks enter the capillary system of foreign-policy scholarship. It is still up to us to make good on Manning’s threat against our country’s false innocence, a question more of political muscle than of hidden knowledge revealed.