The Emperor Wears No Gloves: Manning and the Other Rebels

In October 2001, a spokesperson for President George W. Bush indicated “the gloves are off,” and Vice-President Cheney said he would enjoy the gift of  bin Laden’s head “on a silver platter.” [1] This kind of talk reflected an angry lust for revenge following September 11, and set the tone for a decade of violence. Both sides might have declared: The gloves are off and now you will pay, you see, for messing with us.

Recently, development of this “gloves off” mentality has emerged in the Bradley Manning case, and in the interference with David Miranda along with the smashing of hard drives in The Guardian’s basement. Aggression leaks beyond the battlefield with a certain indignation and self-righteousness, not unlike an angry schoolmaster who must discipline and subdue. This “gloves off” attitude apparently needs a corresponding toughness off the battlefield as well as on. Are there historical precedents for controlling critical voices, the rebels?

Sedition laws in America are as old as 1798, in terms of speaking or writing against the government, and this same yearning to limit expression re-aroused itself with the Sedition Act of 1918, which “made it illegal to speak out against the government or the war, or to discourage anyone from enlisting in the military.” [2] These laws were eventually rescinded, but new research has surfaced to reveal another source of repression.

Colonel Todd E. Pierce, in “Making the World the Enemy,” has traced recent government attitudes for self-protection back to America’s civil war period and the “war laws” of that time.  These include “aiding and comfort” to the enemy as a cause for the government to respond punitively to “criticism” of US government actions:

“. . . vague offenses of ‘material support for terrorism’ and conspiracy were claimed to be ‘war crimes’ triable by military commissions. These were offenses that were analogized to ‘aiding the enemy’ by Military Commission prosecutors. However, ‘aiding the enemy,’ as interpreted during the Civil War, could be mere criticism of government officials, such as ‘publicly expressing hostility toward the government,’ according to documents filed by Military Commission prosecutors.” [3]

As applicable to Bradley Manning, plus critical voices in the press, particularly the independent progressive press, we might ask what constitutes “aiding the enemy” in this military commission way of thinking, and how that influences administrative policies.

First, if this “aid” has nothing to do with helping the enemy in some explicit hostile act, could what otherwise might be considered “freedom of speech” become emotionally charged into “aiding the enemy,” accompanied by such terms as “treason” and “traitor”? For example, is it permissible to question government behavior and reveal potentially uncomplimentary evidence? Could a massacre of innocent civilians such as occurred at My Lai in Vietnam in 1968 be investigated? Or the Robert Bales massacre in Afghanistan in 2012? Or might even the most sober, evidentiary analysis rooted in fact on such matters lead to the category “aiding the enemy” and trouble?

Next, the slippery but crucial factor of “respect” plays strongly into correct behavior and avoiding government wrath. “Aiding the enemy” could be defined as any behavior that does not show sufficient “respect” for the government. In fact, Colonel Pierce reveals that in the civil war’s “war laws” a dangerous lack of respect included “embarrassing” the government. This means that the government’s red face over unsavory revelations in itself–as distinct from the revelations themselves–can lead to a dire response.

Of course, civil law differs from martial (or military) law in permissiveness, including constitutional rights within a system in which theoretically “the people” govern, not a ranked hierarchy of bosses. Military personnel usually know very well there should never be any criticism or presumptuous behavior from within the ranks. The military mouth should be kept shut about qualms of conscience. The blank-faced warrior with his “No, sir” and “Yes, sir” is the model. Disobedience usually leads toward court martial, not a trial in which innocence is presumed until shown otherwise, and not a highly public military trial meant “to set an example.”

In the civilian world most people have not remotely begun to think the same kind of strictures for proper respect and obedience, as basic to the military, could be applied to ordinary citizens, even though told “The world is a battlefield.”  Nevertheless, it is certainly possible that in a time of emergency martial laws may be ordered up at the behest of the president.

It appears that in the Bush thinking (now followed by Obama), resurrecting these old civil war “war laws,” which are kindred toward martial law itself—and it is interesting how in these last few years domestic police departments have increasingly militarized—indicates a longing for more restraint and obedience. Criticism of the regime is not considered helpful. A sort of righteous indignation stirs.

So, very valuably, Colonel Pierce’s study, which shows both Bush and Obama administrations influenced by these civil war laws, leads to a better understanding of why John Kiriakou is in prison for exposing the previous administration’s torture programs, why the harsh conduct of the imprisonment and trial proceedings of Bradley Manning, and possible reasons for the recent thuggish behavior with David Miranda and destruction of Guardian hard drives. [4]

The dynamics in play with these cases are all the same. The problem is the runaway adrenalin fueling the self-righteous rage as it transforms into vengeance. A fight fire with fire mentality is essentially the same as “the gloves are off” and conveying the impression that we are very, righteously, angry. The world is a battlefield, and we will pursue our enemies to the ends of the earth. We will take our revenge for what you have done. Be careful you do not become our enemy. And in order to deal with that awkward enmity coming from our own citizen critics—or to pursue one hundred percent conformity to the way we see things—we will root into these old laws to guide us on how to deal with you.

However, complication arises in that anger and revenge create nearly a delicious kind of emotion for many, a self-righteous glee suffuses brain and physiological system. The phrase “just desserts” implies a reward or treat of some kind. [4] And herein lies the danger. Clarity and perspective disappear into murk. Revenge is rarely carried out with humility, or apologetically, or with kindness as with: We are sorry, but for the greater good so objectively clear to us, you must be punished, and it’s not only for your own good but on the side of justice. No, instead it’s You will pay, you see, for messing with us.

That the soldiers in the “Collateral Murder” video, or the ones pissing on corpses, or Staff Sergeant Robert Bales’ slaughtering of sixteen civilians, mostly women and children, or Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s slaughtering 23 and wounding 42 at Fort Hood, or whoever and whenever the warriors have done their work throughout time, that all of these were locked into self-righteous anger suffused with implacable non-feeling—features of psychopathic behavior—is not surprising to us. Further, in a range from schoolmasterish reprimanding to slaughtering, the essential self-righteousness driven by revenge dominates, and buries thinking and reflection in obscurity.

It’s curious that the massacre of innocents may bring a calm response, as in “Well, that’s war,” whereas questioning and embarrassing an administration’s actions and purposes sets off the firestorm of indignation, psychologically a somewhat similar battle-response to what sometimes leads on to travesty. Lieutenant Calley at My Lai was not weeping and distraught as he mowed down women and children. That came much later in his life when he had built perspective. [6] Apparently also having built perspective since his crime, Robert Bales is now said to have apologized and called his action “cowardice.” [7]

Considering this background of rage and self-righteousness, precarious as it may be in leading on to travesties of various sorts, it is obvious the Manning trial had absolutely nothing to do with “justice” and everything to do with “show” and “setting an example.” Self-righteous, indignant anger prevailed throughout Manning’s ordeal, whether from President Obama’s declaring him guilty two years in advance, his inhumane treatment while incarcerated, the prosecutors’ hostility, or the sentencing at 35 years’ incarceration.

As for soldiers implicated in the “Collateral Murder” video, or those leaders who engineered an unnecessary war with Iraq in 03, or those Wall Street specialists who fostered a financial breakdown in 08—as now widely being pointed out in aftermath to Manning’s 35 year sentence—these examples are understandable expressions of outrage at the inconsistency of “justice.” But they are unfortunately irrelevant.

Because the Bradley Manning trial had nothing to do with justice. Neither would an Assange or a Snowden trial. We were told “He must be made an example of,” and the authoritarian stepped forward with his blow, sternly and righteously, then, nodding, was happy to receive approval from the multitudes. Will perspective build toward softening the punishment after the culprit has cooled his heels a few years? Apparently Manning could be paroled in nine years or so.

Perhaps ongoing investigations of the Manning case will prove the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a 35 year sentence, by showing even one specific instance of “harm” caused by his actions and publication by Wikileaks.  A problem here is the confusion or lack of clarity on what that “harm” actually was. Again Colonel Pierce’s study offers a way forward.

The layman has perhaps been thinking the damage from Manning’s leaks has been death somewhere, or compromise of strategic outposts and intelligence, not “simply” government with a red face. Possibly, the government and its defenders have been unclear on the damage done because these advocates are too embarrassed to admit that the embarrassment in itself constitutes that harm, as though to be shamed is a villainy far outpacing the wrongdoing revealed.

In its quest to deal with this kind of problem and a clever way to shift public outrage, the Bush administration sought into the civil war’s “war laws” in which “embarrassing” the government alone, as with potential for “disrespect,” let alone the difficulty in explaining, is judged to be the harm done. The Obama administration continues in this vein.

What we ordinary observers might have thought was nothing more harmful to the government than a red face over conduct sorely needing review, which might stimulate the building of analysis and perspective, and which might lead on in valuable directions—the very direction Manning claims he was striving for, and for which millions across the globe consider him heroic—this indeed has turned out to be precisely the problem. The red face must be avenged.

The government is embarrassed at the disclosures of criminal massacres of innocents, at nefarious schemes, at questionable policies, etc. That across the globe, including a significant number of Americans, people have stopped in their tracks, suddenly paused to think, begun to raise questions on current foreign policy, conduct of the wars, directions in economic policies and practices, and the relationship of militarism and its industries to what’s happening with the violence—all of this perturbation has proven highly alarming to those heavily invested in the proceedings.

Perhaps such questions are too complex, hence why so many decades must pass before the truth surfaces as with the CIA-run coup in Iran in 1953 and the insanity of the Vietnam War. Versus calm, creative, perspective-building investigation it is so much easier to be angry and indignant and feel the impetuous, nearly ecstatic, rush of “being right” and “defending the homeland” and “acting for national security,” formulas which repeated often enough become Pavlovian, so that transformation into authoritarian bullying is also somehow right and proper and even eagerly celebrated.

Authoritarian acts then become based on the principle: “We need to set an example.”  Any person inclined to “embarrass” the government—whether Kiriakou, Manning, Assange, Snowden, editors at The Guardian, or David Miranda—will experience the Emperor’s wrath. The gloves are off, and we don’t fool around here. You will pay, you see, for messing with us.


[1] See here.

[2] On sedition acts go here

[3] Go to this site for more .

[4] Actions related to Miranda and The Guardian here.

[5] Explained here.

[6] Indicated here.

[7] Noted here.

Peter Bollington is a retired senior citizen in the US writing occasionally to the local and internet press.

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