A few weeks ago, before the cacophony of the first 14 days of the Trump presidency, President Barack Obama did something that will reverberate around Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) halls for years to come. He released Chelsea Manning, the infamous whistleblower, who released one of the largest caches of data in history. I instantly noticed the divide on Facebook; those that celebrated it typically were civilians, and those that were opposed to it, typically veterans. I was one of the many veterans that condemned the release but perhaps not for reasons you might assume. I am one of the more liberal veterans you might meet, however, I try to examine causes before getting behind them. I might be biased, but I think Americans should be forced to watch the combat footage of their horrific foreign policy results. So I sympathize with the functionality of the leak, and despite the careless way the entire stock of data was released, some of what Manning released was important. There is an explicit understanding within the military that we might hate what we are doing, but we will work together to keep each other as safe as possible. It does not always work. I would also like to bridge the gap of understanding between the civilian and military population, which appears to get farther apart every day and perhaps shed light on why releasing Manning was not the godsend to liberals that we all wanted. So while the release of Manning was positive for people who eternally occupy the moral high ground, it was negative for some of us who have to operate within the parameters of the world around us.
First, Manning’s actions were an utter betrayal of the military and diplomats. Disregarding Manning’s mental health, I’m going to focus strictly on the betrayal. I think it was about time that the American public sees what was going on in our wars abroad; I think the war in Iraq was illegally ordered but carried out by good and honorable people. That doesn’t make the knife we put to Iraqi throats feel any better, however. American soldiers, by and large, do not commit war crimes on a regular basis. So I think it was a great service to get the American public to see the airstrike videos, but almost no one gave a damn about what was actually in the leaks. If Manning had only leaked the airstrike video, then I would understand what she did. That is not what Manning did, however, but rather the implications of what Manning did. By irresponsibly releasing a massive trove of state department memos and Iraqi war records, Manning caused difficult problems for diplomacy between governments all over the world, in some cases for the common good, but in most cases unnecessary political groveling. In other words, not only did Manning betray her fellow soldiers, but she also put thousands of people at risk in causing the political crisis in an already fraught world.
Second, and perhaps more powerful, Manning received a pardon for breaking a contract with the United States military when others did not and were passed over for a pardon. While there was clearly some good that came from the leaks, no matter how you examine it, Manning broke the law while in uniform. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, we have nearly 200,000 veterans locked up our nation’s prisons. How many of those were non-violent drug offenders? Furthermore, there are others who served and were discharged honorably and yet cannot obtain pardons. Others, like the deported veterans, have been fighting for their pardons for three administrations. These deported veterans served their country honorably but did not have the luxury of either white skin or a last name like Manning. These service members did not release the most damaging information cache in history, indeed most of them served with distinction. Yet, even with all the advocacy, the deported veterans will still wait on the other side of the wall, with the hope that Trump might pardon them. Finally, between 1994 and 2009, 13,194 people were discharged prior to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell for their sexual orientation, and these veterans did not break faith with their country. Even more of an insult are the victims of sexual assault who were dishonorably discharged after retaliating against their superiors. Yet among these groups of individuals, Obama only found one to pardon. Deported veterans, non-violent drug users, LGBT, and sexual assault victims were all passed over in place of Manning, who most veterans view as a traitor. I do not speak for all veterans, but it will be a long time before most of us forget the Manning pardon.
To be clear, some of the leaks that occurred were vital to our national interest. I believe we should not invade foreign countries on false intelligence or for strange reasons. However, once we are in the country, we have little choice but to finish what we started. Manning’s leak caused countless Iraqi and Afghani intelligence assets to be compromised, which either hindered the mission or prolonged it. She embarrassed multiple well-meaning diplomats for routine character assessments of their counterparts, resulting in lost work hours for both the diplomats and their host countries playing damage control. It would have been incredibly easy for Manning to look at the data she had and assess what could be leaked in order to maximize her intent, without endangering the lives of innocent people. We want to know when our government commits crimes, and whistleblowers are an important aspect of our democracy and should be protected. But Manning did not blow a whistle, Manning lit her friend’s house on fire and gave them the finger as she walked away.
White is a member of the class of 2019.