Chelsea Manning Rejects Antiwar, Conscientious Objector, and Peace Activist Labels (and That’s Okay)
It must be strange to be Chelsea Manning. The former Army Private (previously known as Bradley Manning) did a very decisive thing by leaking thousands of documents to Wikileaks. In spite of some initial suggestions that she did this in some apolitical — possibly mentally ill — fashion (Ann Coulter’s particularly asshole-ish summation was that Manning leaked while in a bad gay snit), it eventually became clear that agree or not, Manning had leaked for some very clearly principled reasons. Turns out she was damned articulate even.
But this decisive action turned into (relatively) passive captivity the moment she was arrested in 2010. It was mostly left to other activist to take up the banner and turn Manning from a whistleblower to the subject of various activist campaigns; well-intentioned and heroic campaigns, but that turnaround may well be frustrating to someone with only a limited ability to communicate her views for the past several years.
And today — two months after she was sentenced to 35 years in prison — Manning delivered her first official statement (besides announcement of her gender identity) since her sentencing. The content of the letter might bewilder some. Within it Manning clarified that she didn’t leak for any kind of explicitly pacifistic reasons. And she definitely wasn’t “overwhelmed” to have the 2013 Sean MacBride peace award accepted on her behalf last month by Ann Wright, a peace activist and retired Army Colonel.
Manning’s letter said that she considers herself first and foremost a “transparency activist.” “I don’t consider myself a ‘pacifist,’ ‘anti-war,’ or (especially) a ‘conscientious objector.’ “Now – I accept that there may be ‘peaceful’ or ‘anti-war’ implications to my actions – but this is purely based on your [Wright’s] subjective interpretation of the primary source documents released in 2010-11.”
Neither Wright — who apologized for misinterpreting Manning’s wishes — nor the International Peace Bureau were alone in perhaps overstating Manning’s peacenik bonafides. It’s difficult not to see the release of hundreds of thousands of documents, including detailed war logs on the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the infamous “Collateral Murder” video, as furthering the cause of peace and antiwar activism. But Manning’s stressing of the transparency angle of her actions is not new. In February, when she plead guilty to some of the crimes for which she was later convicted, Charlie Savage of The New York Times wrote:
Pfc. Bradley Manning on Thursday confessed in open court to providing vast archives of military and diplomatic files to the antisecrecy group WikiLeaks, saying that he released the information to help enlighten the public about “what happens and why it happens” and to “spark a debate about foreign policy.”
Appearing before a military judge for more than an hour, Private Manning read a statement recounting how he joined the military, became an intelligence analyst in Iraq, decided that certain files should become known to the American public to prompt a wider debate about foreign policy, downloaded them from a secure computer network and then ultimately uploaded them to WikiLeaks.
Later in the piece, Savage describes Manning’s dislike of many aspects of the war in Iraq while seeing them in-country, but the idea of the public’s right to know reads as the most fundamental motivation — even when what the public doesn’t know is war crimes, torture, and other dirty-dealings.
Manning also wrote in her statement today that “I believe it is also perfectly reasonable to subjectively interpret these documents and come to the opposite opinion and say ‘hey, look at these documents, they clearly justify this war’ (or diplomatic discussion, or detention of an individual).” That’s a bit of a stretch. But there is a type of hawk who will at least rhetorically admit that war ain’t pretty, but will then brush off critiques of it based on such “emotional” pleas as, say, a bunch of dead civilians. So, not having combed though all 700,000 documents Manning leaked, perhaps she is not entirely wrong there.
Fundamentally, we may disagree on the interpretation of Manning’s actions, but she definitely knows her own motivations, opinions, and feelings best. She doesn’t need to be the antiwar martyr now suffering for our sins. It would be great if she went full-on libertarian peacenik tomorrow, but she helped show us what war looks like. And she has proven how harshly the government will come down on anyone who dares to tell its secrets. She wrote today, ” I feel that the public cannot decide what actions and policies are or are not justified if they don’t even know the most rudimentary details about them and their effects.” That’s a hell of a start. And it may prove a better avenue to stopping wars than most.
Additionally, in respect to whispers that Manning might get the Nobel Peace Prize (she was nominated with 258 other individuals) — well, that would be a pleasant turnaround, considering that historical choices for that dubious honor include Barack Obama, Henry Kissinger, and Woodrow Wilson. But if Manning’s document leak says nothing inherently antiwar, winning the Nobel Peace Price would say even less. She definitely deserves better that that insult.