Why Bradley Manning belongs here

WWI_FortMeade I’m already getting assailed for including in my title Bradley Manning, who so many have already branded a traitor — even some vets who are themselves in the book draw the line at what he’s done. But as mesmerized as I am by the case, I’m even more mesmerized by the way it’s galvanized so many people — some soldiers/vets, some civilians like me who’ve internalized that old VVAW slogan “Love the warrior, hate the war.”  It’s why I got my butt onto that Occupy bus and went down to Fort Meade for Manning’s first pretrial hearing more than a year ago.

Here’s what it was like— something I hadn’t put up here because I thought would be the prologue to this book. As I pull my manuscript apart to reshape it, some leaves fall off that might still be worth sharing — and I thought this might explain some things. I’ve posted photos of that weekend on this blog  before, and they’re not hard to find — so the image above is simply that of old Camp Meade, back when it was an army camp instead of the intelligence-HQ Fort Meade. I’m betting that the scene outside the fort last month wasn’t that different from what I described then.

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Fort Meade, MD, December 16, 2011

The morning had already begun to chill as the bus pulled onto Reece Road long past the highway signs that said FORT GENERAL GEORGE MEADE.  Were it not for that sign, it might have seemed a suburban neighborhood like any on the Beltway, streets filled with ranch houses and McMansion where barracks once stood (thanks to the DoD Privatization Initiative). Certainly no sign that this had been, in 1917, one of the first camps built for new troops in 1917, its three infantry divisions processed 400,000 soldiers (as well as 22,000 horses and mules.). Or that seven million had done the same during World War II, including the women telephone operators known as Hello Girls, and certainly no sign of  the Vietnam-era 11th ACRBlackhorse Regiment, which had beginning in 1966 powered the Sheridan tanks arriving in Phu Hoa, South Vietnam with the then-new   Armored Cavalry Assault Vehicle.

Those were long-ago days, and all that was left of those huge posts was the intelligence units that had been at their core, now morphed into the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. To look at now, you would have to look hard to find signs of either, until you arrived at the base’s low-profile main gate, where dark-uniformed personnel waved in cars and gestured to the driver of a chartered bus, that had come all he way from New York with members of Occupy Wall Street. Most were twentysomething activists, happy to be plastered with a sticker with a photo of an Army private even younger than they. The group was directed to the lawn in front of the fort, and told it was their “designated protest area today.”

Already on the lawn were reporters sheltering their notepads from the wind shadowing a mix of weathered activists, some young (like the Occupants)  and some who looked like they could have been at Woodstock, including a scattering of veterans from wars spanning three decades. Many wore stickers or held signs with the three words being chanted by the rest: FREE BRADLEY MANNING.

Almost none of holding those signs saying “Free Bradley Manning” had even met the 24-year-old Army private in question, or even seen him. This was definitely true of the thousands of around the world who had written, rallied, or donated toward his defense and the Bradley Manning Support Network. It was even true of those who, either now or elsewhere, had worn the well-circulated mask with a photo of Private Manning’s smiling face and the words “I AM BRADLEY MANNING.” All had their own reasons for doing so, and not all of them about the case itself: some were fuzzy about the details, though all knew that Private Manning was being charged with the largest intelligence leak in 50 years.

For some supporters,  it was enough that Manning’s alleged actions challenged the U.S.’ national-security apparatus. Those opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were wowed by the probability that he had leaked footage of an Apache helicopter raid, later nicknamed Collateral Murder. “He saw what needed to be public, and made it so!”  And for most of those from the loosely-termed Occupy Network, it got even morer specific: Manning had allegedly linked diplomatic cables that are often credited with sparking the “Arab Spring”  with  long-suppressed truths about dictators Tunisia,  Yemen, Egypt, The protests in the Arab world had then helped spur the first ‘Occupy’ encampments. “I asked Why? And when I heard ‘Bradley Manning’s trial,’ I said hell yea,” a slim blond woman from Occupy Newark had told this reporter at 5 a.m., before we climbed the bus from New York’s Zuccotti Park.

Aboard that bus was also Captain Lawrence Rockwood, also a whistleblower of sorts, who’d himself been court-martialed back in 1994 when he refused to ignore conditions in Haitian prisons (during Clinton’s Operation Restore Hope). “I haven’t been back here since I was in uniform,” he said before he departed the bus.

A few feet away, talking to a reporter, was Jeff Paterson, who had refused in 1991 to board the plane taking him to the Gulf War, dragged off the tarmac in handcuffs. “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he liked to say.

Behind Paterson was former Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant Michael Thurman, 24, who thanks to help from Paterson bore with a brand-new discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection.  “Were you court-martialed?” he was asked by Lt. Dan Choi, not that much older than Thurman  and still in his Army dress blues, though since being expelled for coming out as gay he’d mostly worn his uniform for TV or protests like these.

As morning turned to noon, the Vietnam-era rebel soldiers turned up, first recognizable from afar in their lined faces and graying heads.    A few had gotten up early enough to be allowed into the courtroom, like Nate Goldschlag, who toward the end of that war had founded one of the largest underground GI  newspapers at his German base.

The latter group hugged each other in greeting before holding signs and asking motorists to honk. Colonel Ann Wright, 64, who had quit the State Department in 2003 when war was declared against Iraq, had a voice as girlish as her round blond  face as she led a chant: “Free Bradley Now!”  Beside her was Bill Perry, who decades earlier had testified before TV cameras about atrocities he had seen in Vietnam as an Army sergeant, at a hearing in Detroit known as “Winter Soldier.”

Ward Reilly, his gray hair reaching his shoulders, wore a hand-crafted pendan, made from his mutilated dog tags, reshaped into three letters: FTA (Fuck the Army).  “I was court-martialed four times,” he told Thurman and Capt. Rockwood. “My platoon sergeant wanted to put me away for 20 years. But the platoon was short of good marksmen, we just kept getting sent back to the infantry. During Vietnam,” he explained for the civilians listening, “a prison sentence was kind of a promotion.”  The vets just laughed, in that kind of soldier-solidarity not usually available outside the American Legion.

As the sky darkened, and the air chilled further, the crowd splintered a little — some took breaks in warmer spaces, others huddled together under the Occupy tent.  Thurman went off to the theater that had been set up for remote viewing of the legal proceedings, though he hadn’t gotten admitted to the courtroom. He came back and sad he’d seen Nate Goldschlag stand up and shout “Bradley Manning is a hero!” before being ushered out by military police. Goldschlag was exuberant, only somewhat because he knew his outburst would lead the evening news.  Less exuberant at end of day was Lt. Dan Choi, who said he had been manhandled by security as they escorted him out of the courtroom. “They tore my dress blues!”

Some chapters of Veterans for Peace had brought identifying  banners, including Baltimore’s PHILIP BERRIGAN CHAPTER and the Massachusetts SMEDLEY BUTLER BRIGADE, both bearing names of vets who had famously written against war. In addition to those ghosts, supporting from afar was Daniel Ellsberg, the former Marine whose similarly huge Pentagon Papers had helped end the war in Vietnam, and Scott Olsen of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Occupy Oakland, now famous for being injured by a police tear-gas canister.

For this reporter, there were many other virtual allies at the rogue soldiers’ backs — many elsewhere that day, others long dead.  Major Hugh Thompson, who’d stopped the bloodshed at My Lai. Lt. Silas Soule, who’d done the same during an 1864 massacre against Indians. Evan Thomas, one of the World War I objectors whose tortures were vividly described by poets. As the vigil broke up, everyone knew it wasn’t near over.

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And it isn’t of course. Neither is the trial, which I’ll cover here eventually. I’m making no declarations about his heroism or not: but this is an important moment, in our “post-9/11” world, and these guys are definitely shaping it.

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