Today, Bradley Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking government documents to WikiLeaks. He will be eligible for parole in 8 years, receiving a sentence, as his defense lawyer requested, “that allows him to have a life.”
Manning explained his choice, apologized, and asked the judge for leniency before the decision, saying:
The decisions that I made in 2010 were made out of a concern for my country and the world that we live in. Since the tragic events of 9/11, our country has been at war. We’ve been at war with an enemy that chooses not to meet us on any traditional battlefield, and due to this fact we’ve had to alter our methods of combating the risks posed to us and our way of life.
I initially agreed with these methods and chose to volunteer to help defend my country. 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. It was at this time I realized in our efforts to meet this 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.
In our zeal to kill the enemy, we internally debated the definition of torture. We held individuals at Guantanamo for years without due process. We inexplicably turned a blind eye to torture and executions by the Iraqi government. And we stomached countless other acts in the name of our war on terror.
Patriotism is often the cry extolled when morally questionable acts are advocated by those in power. When these cries of patriotism drown our any logically based intentions [unclear], it is usually an American soldier that is ordered to carry out some ill-conceived mission.
Our nation has had similar dark moments for the virtues of democracy—the Trail of Tears, the Dred Scott decision, McCarthyism, the Japanese-American internment camps—to name a few. I am confident that many of our actions since 9/11 will one day be viewed in a similar light.
As the late Howard Zinn once said, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”
I understand that my actions violated the law, and I regret if my actions hurt anyone or harmed the United States. It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.
If you deny my request for a pardon, I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society. I will gladly pay that price if it means we could have country that is truly conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all women and men are created equal.
In an earlier speech to the court when he pleaded guilty, he talked about his motivations, saying:
“We were risking so much for people who seemed unwilling to cooperate with us,” the 25-year-old soldier said, speaking calmly and quietly. It was spawning “frustration and hatred on both sides,” he said, adding: “I became depressed.”
Manning said that WikiLeaks never pressured him to turn over documents and that he came to see the group led by Australian Julian Assange as the best vehicle to dump the war logs and cables into the public domain.
“I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information . . . this could spark a domestic debate over the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”
Instead of sparking a domestic debate over foreign policy and the role of the military, Manning’s leak sparked debates about patriotism in the military, and about the dangerous/liberating accessibility of information through new technologies. The key question seemed to be, “Who has the right to know?”
And for leadership studies, the questions seem to be, “What happens to the boldest of courageous followers?” And, “Is it possible to change the system from within, as a follower?”
Manning’s experience matches past struggles and raises the stakes for whistleblowers who face difficulties after their revelations. Courageous followers are often punished for their ethics, and their integrity questioned because of their choices. That’s why we call them courageous.
As for the second question, any answers to the leadership questions about followers changing the system from within are paradoxical at best. Yes, systems say, you can make change from within — through proper channels. But often, those channels are blocked or locked, protecting the system from change.
The key seems to be that followers need to have inside knowledge, creativity and courage, recognizing places and practices where change is possible, and being strategic in their challenges to authority. At least if they want to stay followers, and not be kicked out of the system for knocking too loudly at a door strategically locked.