An Obligation to Our Own

by Michael Mason


Beginning with Woody Guthrie, Oklahomans have a long and storied tradition of challenging authoritarianism. Guthrie used his guitar, Will Rogers did it with a smile, and Wilma Mankiller defied the male-dominated power structure. However, the presumed case of Private First Class Bradley Manning is distinctly notable, both for its death-defying act of civil disobedience, and for its powerful scope of influence.

If we are to believe the allegations, Manning, who was trusted with classified military information, sent privileged data to an Australian company, Wikileaks, who used a server based in Sweden to accept the leak. While it is to America’s discredit that one of its own citizens had to rely on the help of outsiders to reveal a truth about itself, such an act still constitutes a clear breach of military policy, and likely a violation of the law. And yet the same act embodies the heights of human dignity and bravery–qualities that our founding fathers held in surplus and which we find regrettably lacking in our own leaders, but still very much alive in the likes of ordinary Americans like Manning.

By serving as an intelligence analyst for the Army, Manning was given the ability to see through the military’s machine of public obfuscation, and what he saw must have horrified him to the point where he was willing to risk his own life to illumine atrocities like the notorious “Collateral Murder” video. Manning likely believed that the lives of innocent people and his fellow service members were unnecessarily at risk, and that the military was abusing its power. As reporter Denver Nicks and others have noted, so far, the leaks have only served to humiliate the military, and have not caused a single reported death. Since the leak, the military’s own policies have resulted in nearly 200 American deaths in Afghanistan, for reasons most Americans struggle to articulate.

In response to the increasing threats to its well-being, Wikileaks uploaded an enigmatically-titled file called “Insurance” on or around July 25, 2010, which remains password-protected to this day. Several days later, the Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell issued the technically-impossible and therefore pointless demand that Wikileaks and its spokesman, Julian Assange, return any of the military’s classified documents immediately and destroy any copies. Yet not a single reporter in the press room was willing to point out the obvious. It was the first time that a small, outside organization had so clearly and publicly held the U.S. Department of Defense by the balls. The hand was Assange’s, but the muscle was Manning’s.

The military is neither accustomed to that predicament nor inclined to take it lightly. Almost immediately after the press conference, outcries rose around the world in support of the military, calling Wikileaks a threat to national security and a terrorist organization, and labeling Manning a traitor. The proverbial dunces had gathered in a confederacy against them. Despite the cacophony, Manning and Wikileaks, quite clearly and definitively, symbolize the truest and most vital elements that our nation was founded upon. They demonstrate an intrinsic reverence for transparency and accountability, as well as a refusal to kowtow to abuses of authority.

Americans recognize the power of truth and the need to protect its defenders. They created the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 (now regarded as largely impotent), as well as the Military Whistleblower’s Protection Act, which benignly allows military personnel to report to members of Congress. But what is a person to do if both the military and Congress are co-conspirators in the same cover-up?

In better days, Americans had a solid alternative: the Press. Today, it’s evident that Americans are turning to the more immediate and less-censored platforms powered by online social networks–mediums that have comparably little to no obligation to either corporate or government welfare. The result is the ability to efficiently and powerfully build a consensus. Already, Manning’s supporters number over 11 thousand on Facebook alone, and he has won the support of a number of public figures, most notably that of famed Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. Where, then, are the public servants who are willing to stand up for Manning? To Oklahoma’s shame, not a single state politician has spoken in his defense.

Without the Afghan War logs, the public at large would remain largely ignorant of an increasingly apparent quagmire America finds itself in. When it comes to global conflicts, the American military has become too big to fail and too big to succeed. But thanks to Wikileaks, the American public now has a more informed position by which to hold its military accountable for its actions.

Protecting America is different from protecting our government. Our founding fathers knew what to protect. They created amendments that protected free speech and religion. But they didn’t create a lot of protection for the government, because they knew that such an act was a coward’s game (the entire second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence illustrates this distrust wonderfully). After having won freedom from one oppressive government, our founding fathers weren’t about to allow another one to flourish in their new home. As Americans, we must be vigilant to remind ourselves that both our government and military answers to us, to We the People.

Rather than prosecute Manning, Congress should be calling on him to testify against the policies perpetuating the war in Afghanistan. To castigate Manning while claiming breaches of security, violations of law, or–most ignorantly–treason, is itself a shameful act of cowardice and immorality. If our obligation to the truth continues unchampioned, we can all count on a future in which the military and government only become more secretive and more overreaching–conditions that have heralded perilous times for many nations throughout history.

Michael Mason is the editor of This Land. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, Discover Magazine, and a number of other publications.