Bradley Manning is currently imprisoned. He is imprisoned, as you probably know, for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks for global release via the Internet. Some of what he released was embarrassing to the State Department. Some of what he released revealed war crimes committed by the U.S. military, breaches of the Geneva Convention. The revelation of these documents is being called treason. I call it an act of conscience and bravery and I call acts of conscience and bravery carried out at great personal risk heroism.
The tribal nature of humanity makes us value group safety. Members of mobs behave in ways that individuals within the mob would see as obviously reprehensible under other circumstances. People who abhor violence, who believe in principles of decency and tolerance, support killing in the name of national security or preemptive defense. Ultimately, though, when one person within the group sees the hypocrisy that can be invisible as part of the fabric of a cultural experience, that single person can remind us all of our responsibility to stand against injustice, even injustice that it is easier to ignore, to obscure, to forget.
Yes, Bradley Manning's release of classified documents reveals wrongs perpetrated by the American military in the Middle East; but what the documents really reveal runs far deeper and holds far more importance than the specifics of the released data. It reminds us that the very act of war is inherently criminal, that once killing is presented as a valid solution to human differences, the value of humanity itself becomes diminished. Bradley Manning's courageous action reminds us not that people do bad things to one another in war, but that we allow it to happen in our names as long as we let our leaders hide from us the atrocities committed on our behalf.
It would be easy to point at those implicated in the documents and say, "That soldier should be punished for killing civilians. That general should be fired for helping to cover it up." What Bradley Manning did, though, was not the easy thing and we should honor his heroism by taking the hard route ourselves. As long as we allow our government to tell us that sending troops to kill people is right and just, as long as we allow our leaders to support war and punish those who speak the truth about the horror they have seen, we all stand complicit in the crimes committed, the killing, maiming and terrorizing of vast civilian populations half-way around the globe.
War cannot be waged decently. War cannot be waged or supported with clean hands or with a clean conscience.
As long as we perpetuate the lies that shroud our history of violence in deceptive tapestries of glory and grandiosity, we believe that violence is grand and glorious and we continue to act badly and lie well. The shine of manifest destiny wears thin when we acknowledge that we mistreated the people who lived on our land, committed genocide against the Native Americans and then polished over the mass murder with comforting tales of savages against peaceful settlers. The half-century of undeclared wars since World War II and the current "war on terror" have all resulted in mass killings of innumerable civilians and enemy soldiers as we carefully tally up the military losses we suffer and find ways to frame the horror as victory for our side. The very premise is a lie.
The world is round. There are no sides. There is no victory.
If the truth really is the first casualty of war, then perhaps reviving the truth is the first step toward ending it. The only heroes in war are those who strive to end it. Bradley Manning, imprisoned for treason, reminds us that true heroism is non-violent. True heroism is a whisper of truth in a carefully orchestrated chorus.