Masculine confusions: Manning and the militarization of US State

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ayesha Alam

Shawwal 24, 1434 2013-09-01

News & Analysis

by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 7, Shawwal, 1434)

Bradley Manning’s trial and conviction once again brings to the fore the criminal nature of the US State. Manning did the honourable thing by exposing US was killings of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. He should have been rewarded for exposing these crimes; instead he has been sentenced to 35 years in jail.

On August 21, private first class in the US army and whistleblower extraordinaire Bradley Manning was sentenced by a military court to 35 years in prison, footnoting one of the most high-octane episodes in the ongoing showdown between the US military industrial complex and everybody else. Manning is the young Army officer responsible for ferrying over 700,000 documents, videos, military white papers, and State Department memos to WikiLeaks, sparking an international firestorm that led Tom Friedman of the New York Times to despair, “we’re leaking power.”

Manning’s trial has gained additional visibility in the wake of the Edward Snowden drama. As of now, Snowden, the 29-year old whistleblower who worked as a contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA), has successfully eluded the US’ global witchhunt and gained political asylum in Russia. Julian Assange too is ensconced in Ecuador’s London embassy. Hollywood’s celluloid adaptation of Assange and WikiLeaks, dubbed The Fourth Estate, is set to be released in the near future, promising to boost the Manning-Assange tale even further. In addition, the comparatively happier fates of Snowden and Assange compared to Manning points to the outcome of Obama’s war on civil liberties and gorily illustrates the US’ transformation into a garrison state. Running turned out to be a better option than the US court system, where democracy has become a political casualty of the Total Security State.

Bradley Manning’s trial was a Kafka-esque affair, held in the same building as the NSA offices. As with the Muslims roped in on “terrorism” cases, the trial revolved around secret evidence and secret witnesses; also 270 of the 350 media organizations that applied for passes to attend were denied. Manning’s defense successfully fended off the Pentagon’s charge of aiding the enemy, which would have potentially drawn down the sentence for execution upon the ex-intelligence officer. The military prosecutor, Joe Morrow, was point blank declaring “He betrayed the United States.”

Manning’s defense recognized that the best way to gain clemency for a soldier turned whistleblower, is to trade in his moral high ground and go for the psychological distress angle. In a narrative favored by both defense and prosecution, Manning suffered post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that led him to act in erratic, and illogical ways. After all, the US military espouses a cult of hyper-masculinity — its ranks of anxiety-ridden brass who are haunted by the need to perpetually prove that they are “manly men” and reportedly responsible for the runaway success of Viagra. But while Manning indeed felt that he suffered from gender misassignment (the feeling that one has been born in the wrong gender), he has been emphatic on the reasons spurring his decision to publicize the War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan-related documents.

“We were obsessed with capturing and killing human targets on lists and ignoring goals and missions,” Manning said in a statement that he read aloud during the February 28 hearing. “I believed if the public, particularly the American public, could see this it could spark a debate on the military and our foreign policy in general as it applied to Iraq and Afghanistan. It might cause society to reconsider the need to engage in counterterrorism while ignoring the human situation of the people we engaged with every day.”

However, Manning’s defense team played up the picture of the soldier haunted by gender-identity disorder and PTSD — the military’s catch-all diagnoses for the depressions, psychoses, and self-destructive acts in returning soldiers stricken by the moral crimes they are made to commit. The military proved to be receptive to the portrait; it was a lot easier to digest the whistleblower as a genetically defective girlie-man, rather than someone with undaunted conscience. In an article published on alternative newsmedia site TomDispatch, Peter van Buren reported that, “Manning’s Army supervisor in Iraq was allowed to testify in the trial, depicting him as a ‘sad, sexually confused, attention seeking young man mesmerized by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.’”

Perhaps the military was expecting that after the trial, they would have on their hands a docile, defeated man who would gamely go along with its image-burnishing in return for parole that might be doled out in 10 years. If so, they were mistaken. On August 21, he sent an open letter to Obama requesting pardon, in which he clearly framed his reasons for leaking classified documents as a stand of principle against the excesses and horrors of the War on Terror.

“It was not until I was in Iraq and reading secret military reports on a daily basis that I started to question the morality of what we were doing,” Manning wrote. “It was at this time I realized that (in) our efforts to meet the risk posed to us by the enemy, we have forgotten our humanity. We consciously elected to devalue human life both in Iraq and Afghanistan. When we engaged those that we perceived were the enemy, we sometimes killed innocent civilians. Whenever we killed innocent civilians, instead of accepting responsibility for our conduct, we elected to hide behind the veil of national security and classified information in order to avoid any public accountability.”

Manning’s statements are akin to Edward Snowden’s justification for exposing the dictatorial powers of the Total Security State. “It’s getting to the point, you don’t have to have done anything wrong,” said Snowden. You simply have to eventually fall under suspicion from somebody, even by a wrong call, and then they could use this system to go back in time and scrutinize every decision you’ve ever made, every friend you’ve ever discussed something with, and attack you on that basis, to sort of derive suspicion from an innocent life and paint anyone in the context of a wrongdoer.” This describes the life of Muslims under the US government.

Manning and Snowden, the two young men from the US intelligence community who have broken ranks with the Total Security State for the values of humanitarianism and civic freedoms pose a direct challenge to US hegemonic militarism. The US military industrial complex is steeped in a culture of troubled, steroid-masculinity that is pumped by spirals of endless violence. Even while the US military publicly condemns soldiers guilty of civilian massacre — in private they are rewarded and glorified for senseless acts of carnage — they believe that “true” men aren’t afraid to “get their hands dirty.” In US public culture, generous Pentagon funds are earmarked for Hollywood to churn out military and espionage-friendly films on a yearly basis, where soldiers, spies, police, FBI, and Homeland Security agents are cast as heroes.

Manning recently declared that he is a transsexual, a woman born in a male body, requesting that he be referred to as “Chelsea Manning.” While the US Army continues to vilify him, questioning how he could have been given security clearance after he sent his military counselor a photo of himself in makeup and a blond wig, the debate exposes how gender is played for cultural warfare in the War on Terror. The US government has openly championed gay and transgender issues in the Muslim world, but within the ranks of the US military, an entirely different standard applies.

On July 26, 2011, the US Embassy in Pakistan hosted a gay pride event, “a celebration” of gay activists in Pakistan that flew in the face of the social mores of the country. In turn, the photos of protesting Jamaat-e Islami students became fodder for the US mainstream media, depicting Pakistan as a nation of extremists. This calculated plan to embarrass its unruly War on Terror partner was echoed in the 2011 Gay Girl of Syria hoax, in which an American man married to a US State department employee created a fake blog of a lesbian Syrian woman called “Amina Arraf.” After staging the fictional Arraf’s arrest by the forces of Bashar al-Asad, the intended effect was to stir public opinion in a manufactured “Arab Spring” against al-Asad. After the plan to overthrow al-Asad from within failed, Strategy No. 2 was put in effect — burning it down by the hands of imported al-Qaeda and Taliban militias, equipped with US-manufactured weapons.

While liberalism is often used as propaganda for international wars, the US military industrial complex has carefully constructed the cult of the soldier within the domestic US. It is this same complex that treats Manning’s transsexual identity with barbs, contempt, and vitriol — suggesting the idea that Manning is deranged and therefore, defective and unpatriotic for leaking US secret information.

Whatever his gender, Manning’s sacrifice of personal safety for the public’s right to transparency from its government is far more heroic than anything displayed by trigger-happy terminators and armchair generals ticking off body counts. The specter of the Total Security State is grim indeed. Manning and Snowden’s leaks show that civil liberties have been eroded to the point that all communications sent anywhere by people are stored as evidence in case someone is later labeled a terrorist.

Facial-scanning technology is now being tested by the Dept. of Homeland Security, where crowds will be “scanned” for individual faces of people on secret lists. Aerostat balloons, which are total aerial surveillance platforms that perpetually float above particular regions, are now to be imported from the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefronts into the US. In a shadow landscape where people are reduced to faceless bits and bytes of exploitable information, Manning struck a memorable blow exposing the information of the state.

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