Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obiter dictum: Chelsea Manning, Abraham Lincoln, and the necessity of cheap grace

This isn't a political blog. Unless, that is, I can tie something to Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War in some way. Then, I'm happy to swerve wildly to share a gratuitous opinion.

On the way out the door, President Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning for leaking tons of classified information to Wikileaks. Praise and hang-wringing both followed, following predictable fault lines. The ACLU said the move probably saved Manning's life, as she has twice attempted suicide while in Leavenworth, and seemed to be slowly dying. She is a transgender woman in an all-male prison. I don't need much imagination to guess that sucks.

Critics, who reportedly included Obama's own Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, predicted the move would have a deleterious effect on good order and discipline in the military and intelligence community. I'll just cut-and-paste comments from three leading Republicans:

"This was grave harm to our national security. and Chelsea Manning is serving a sentence and should continue to serve that sentence," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, told CNN's Jake Tapper on "The Lead."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, denouncing Manning's "treachery," said on Twitter that she "put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets."
And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told CNN that Manning "stabbed his fellow soldiers in the back" and Obama "slapped all those who serve honorably in the face."

 A more nuanced critique of Manning by way of a nuanced critique of Snowden

I have heard Edward Snowden both unduly lionized and cartoonishly demonized. I've heard calls for him to be sainted and rabid calls for his assassination. Malcolm Gladwell's "The Outside Man," from The New Yorker in December 2016, is probably the most rational critique of Snowden I have read. Gladwell reports on a meeting in Russia between Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times decades ago, and Edward Snowden.


Gladwell draws a distinction between Ellsberg, who leaked very limited information that he painstakingly reviewed first, and Snowden, who dumped (who knows how many?) tons of data he could not possibly have reviewed first. Ellsberg is the "insider" whistle blower, Snowden the "outsider," who subscribed to a hacker's ethos that all secrets are suspect. Gladwell imagined a figure called Daniel Snowberg, a combination of Snowden and Ellsberg, and how he might have handled the leaks differently. I quote at length:

Edward Snowden took a different path. He used a Web crawler (a search engine pre-programmed with key words) to roam through the N.S.A. files, “touching” as many as 1.7 million of them. Among those files was the FISC order. But Snowden also accessed, and ultimately passed on to journalists, thousands of files concerning activities that had nothing to do with domestic surveillance.

Daniel Snowberg, the insider, would have sparked a national debate that focused on the question of what access the N.S.A. should have to the private data of ordinary American citizens. And when, in May, 2015, a federal court ruled that the N.S.A.’s telephone-records collection violated the intent of the Patriot Act, Snowberg would have stood as someone who restored the legitimacy of the national-intelligence apparatus: who, in the spirit of Pozen’s notion of self-binding, embarrassed the executive branch in the short term in order to preserve the prerogatives of the executive branch in the long term.

Snowden does not belong in the same category as Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, which indiscriminately makes stolen material available to all comers. Snowden went through intermediaries; he expected his journalistic outlets to curate the material he gave them. Nonetheless, Snowden didn’t leak, in the traditional sense. He flooded, and in that difference of degree is a difference in kind. Edward Jay Epstein’s upcoming book, “How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft,” presents the hard-line intelligence community’s case against Snowden, and what is remarkable about it is how little time Epstein spends on the propriety of the N.S.A.’s domestic surveillance. Instead, he dwells on everything else that Snowden took from the N.S.A. files: details of N.S.A. methodologies, overseas operations, foreign sources—revelations that, national-security officials maintain, gravely compromised our foreign intelligence-gathering.
...No matter how well-intentioned Snowden’s actions—and there are many who see him as a hero—by violating the norms of insider disclosure, he suffered a self-inflicted wound. A much needed national conversation about the N.S.A.’s encroachment on civil liberties became sidetracked by debates about his own motivations.

Manning is kind of like Snowden

Manning could not possibly have read everything she shared. So her leak was risky, and based on the notion that it is illegitimate for a nation to keep any secrets, so any secrets shared did not deserve guarding, a priori.  She shared the private thoughts of ambassadors back to Washington, thoughts based on meetings with foreign officials and from culling the kinds of networks diplomats need to cull to know anything (kind of like journalists). Manning shared all of this, making it permanently unlikely that American diplomats in the future will be able to cultivate networks or encourage openness as easily again.

This is in stark contrast to responsible whistleblowers who shared specific information, at personal cost, but only what was needed. Manning is not a hero. Or if she is, she's a very muddled sort of hero. To be a hero, one has to at least have some ability to evaluate the possible ramifications of one's actions in a meaningful way. Manning could not have done that with information she did not even read.  

Lincoln was in a similar situation to Obama once

During the Civil War, Lincoln had to quickly build a gigantic military from zero. It involved taking hundreds of thousands of young men who'd never been off their families' farms and introducing them overnight to the harsh discipline of military life. That done, they then had to go walk into cannon fire.  They weren't all great at it. Many panicked and ran. Others, exhausted by the strain of duty, fell asleep during guard duty at night.

Lincoln, to the exasperation of his own Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, pardoned many of them. Stanton and many generals worried that Lincoln's eagerness to "not murder" boys, as Lincoln put it, would undermine the good order and discipline of the military. Without the threat of death, who would walk into gunfire?

Lincoln understood these concerns. He just couldn't bring himself to sign the death warrants of kids who had acted in what seemed to Lincoln a rather expected manner. Lincoln wasn't sure he himself would have done differently on a battlefield.

I unwisely reveal personal information

I hated the Marine Corps, which I enlisted in at age 19. I joined up as an evangelical kid from Ohio. I then learned a foreign language and read as much of some random "100 books everyone should read" list I found as I could. I read history. I read philosophy. I read whatever I could find. Meanwhile, some of the people in charge of me acted in a manner that is inevitable in a society where those in authority cannot be held accountable by those under them.


After an absurdly long run of boorish, corrupt, cruel supervisors in the Marine Corps, and at a time when I was also reading things like Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, I began to suspect I was a conscientious objector, because I suspected people could not be trusted with the kind of power the military gave them. I kept my feelings to myself and tried to grit it through the rest of my time. But I had joined on a six-year contract, and I had a long, long way to go.

One day, I got in trouble for forging the signature of my commanding officer. I know, that sounds pretty bad, but I wasn't forging it for personal gain. I didn't requisition myself a television. I had to get my C.O. to sign for my rifle. I don't know why they do this. I was still responsible for it. They just wanted his signature on the card I had to use to withdraw the weapon from the armory. Mine wasn't signed, and it needed to be. I went to the company office and was told the C.O. wasn't in. Instructions on what to do involved going to people far senior to me who I knew would yell at me. I was extremely sensitive back then to being yelled at. I'd go far out of my way to avoid being seen. I'd seen senior enlisted people forge officer's signatures on routine documents dozens of times before. So I signed it.

Nothing happened for a few months, until someone realized that the signature on my card didn't look like everyone else's. I ended up with a non-judicial punishment, also called an article 15, which amounted to a fine and extra duty.

That was a breaking point for me. I applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector within a week. It took a year for the application to be adjudicated. In the end, I was denied a discharge. Partly, the board felt that the timing of my application right after being disciplined was suspect. Rather like Edward Snowden, who has been accused of making his decision to share classified information based on an alleged "workplace spat" with his management two weeks prior to the beginning of his collection of data, I faced (understandable) skepticism based on the timing of my application, right after the only time I'd ever been in trouble.

I was basically a thoughtful young adult learning about a strange part of the adult world, and so was Manning

I ended up gutting out the full six years in the Marine Corps. That one incident was the only time I was ever in trouble. I got an honorable discharge. I went off to college for many years, staying mostly pretty far left of center in my political views, until enough time being around socialists led me to believe they were as deluded and depraved as their opposites I'd spent my early twenties slowly rejecting. Having other jobs besides the Marine Corps also made me realize that some of the things I thought were terrible about the Marines are actually things that are terrible about every job. I've settled down more or less in a left-center position, with bits of far left and center-right here and there for flavor. Maybe a few far right/libertarian ideas on a few economic issues.

Manning had a more tumultuous early adulthood than I did. She had more than just the usual early adult issues to work through, perhaps, but I'd guess some of the difference for her had to do with availability. I didn't have a whole ton of classified data sitting in front of me in my early twenties. When I first really started to dig into radical ideas, like every thinking young man does, I was limited in what I could do about it to basically just annoying my friends with my thoughts. Also, Manning's life in an internet age meant that she might not have faced as many ideas that confronted her own, an irony of living in an age of information. The world has fewer natural brakes on ideological development than it once did. 

Manning felt she had an obligation to do something. That belief was based on naivete born of being a young person just beginning to grapple with the big issues of the world. "A little learning is a dangerous thing," as Alexander Pope put it. Dangerous to the country, but also dangerous to those with a pure enough heart and an immature enough power of discernment to act rashly. If Manning had studied political science and stayed in intelligence for another decade, she might have felt very differently about many of the things she came into contact with in her job. But she didn't get the chance, because her earnestness ran ahead of the speed at which she was able to absorb the world around her into a balanced, fuller view.

Manning, I'm sure, was full of vices as well as virtues when she made her decision to leak intelligence. I'm sure my aversion to the Marine Corps was partly my own vanity as well as the many small and large injustices I saw. We all make decisions for good and bad reasons, "to the greater glory of man," as Kurt Vonnegut put it. If you wait to do something until your intentions are fully pure, you don't intend to do much in life.

Cheap grace, also known as "the world's not fair"

 I can imagine an argument being made that comparing Manning to a country boy private from Indiana in the Civil War cheapens the valor and sacrifice of the latter. I'd agree the bravery of the two acts isn't close to equal. But there is at least some bravery in what Manning did. There were Rangers fighting in Mogadishu in 1993 at the same time I was body surfing on Marine Corps Base Hawaii. I still got the same G.I. Bill benefits as them. It isn't fair. They faced death. Several did die. I never saw combat. But because joining the military shows at least some selflessness, some willingness to sacrifice, our society rewards it. Even if nothing more is ever asked of you, our society is willing to reward those who join, because it has the semblance of selflessness for country to it.

The task Manning faced was not as daunting as walking into cannon fire. Her performance of what she believed was right was not as thoughtful, reserved, and effective as Ellsberg's.

But genuine whistleblowing--actions that take courage, wisdom, and a willingness to face personal loss for the greater good--is so critical to a democratic society, we ought to honor even lesser forms of it. The true performance of whistleblowing is so sacred, so difficult, and so critical to a democracy, we have to show consideration to an ounce of its gold, even when mixed with pounds of dross.

Worth risking a little obedience to win a little devotion

The arguments for not releasing Manning are are perfectly rational. One does have to send a message that state secrets are not lightly to be tampered with, especially in an era when dealing with state secrets is considered so vital, there are now hundreds of thousands of Americans with access to classified information. The arguments for Lincoln not to commute the sentences of soldiers who had failed at their duty were also logical--up until it came time to actually carry out the execution. At that point, another logic altogether took hold for Lincoln.

In the end, Lincoln may have understood a deeper social mystery than his many trusted advisors. Whatever harm was done to good order and discipline by commuting the sentences, it was more than made up for in the personal loyalty soldiers in the Union Army felt for Lincoln whenever he seemed to understand the predicament of the common man in the field. At a time when keeping the country in one piece meant having to nearly forge an entirely new notion of nationhood, Lincoln managed to create love for the new ideal when respect alone would not have done the job.

Some will see letting Manning go as a further example of the weakening of standards in society, paired, in the minds of many, with an emasculation of the culture. Manning, the transgendered woman, is a symbol to them of that emasculation. Too much fawning appreciation for feelings, not enough concern for what is right and what is wrong. But it is precisely the ability of a culture to go beyond right and wrong, to realize that mistakes made by an idealistic young person still learning about the world are different from other, more calloused mistakes, that builds love and devotion for that culture.

I don't know if I'd have acted differently from Manning, given her circumstances. But trying to imagine if I would have is the basis of empathy. She may not deserve mercy as much as others who will not receive it. But that isn't the point. The point is that she made an understandable error--understandable, at least, if we try to understand it--and it does not serve us to watch her die from it. 


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