Nation of They

by zunguzungu

In The Nation a week ago, Rainey Reitman wrote that

The Manning hearing, one of the most important court cases in our lifetime…will show much about the United States’s tolerance for whistleblowers who show the country in an unflattering light. Are we a nation that tolerates criticism and values transparency? Or are we willing to crack down on whistleblowers of conscience? Unfortunately, the military is taking steps to block access by the media and the public to portions of the proceedings, robbing the world of details of this critically important trial.

I’m interested in the way the rhetoric slips from “the United States” and “the military” there, which seems both a symptom of the problem and a failure to address exactly why it is that we have this problem, why it is that we are so “unfortunate” as to be denied access, as a public, to the truth of what is happening with Bradley Manning* during his Article 32 hearing. This is not something that is just happening, by the random happenstance of fate. This is happening because Bradley Manning does not live in a democracy. He lives in the U.S. Army. The same is true when the “Manning hearing” gets called a “court case,” which it is not: we forget that while the United States is a democracy, the U.S. military is something different.

To state only the obvious: a civilian is not supposed to be treated the way Bradley Manning has been and will be treated, because a civilian is supposed to have a particular set of constitutional rights which a soldier lacks. A civilian trial operates according to rules and procedures that were defined in the 18th century by the particular set of concerns which motivated and legitimized the American republic’s secession from the British Empire. Because of what the people who wrote the Bill of Rights were trying to achieve, and because of how the 5th through 8th amendments have been interpreted and redefined ever since, a civilian trial will work one way. And because the military operates by the purest logic of efficacious necessity (as that has been enshrined in the Uniform Code of Miltiary Conduct), a military trial – a court “martial” – will work very differently. Military due process is not nothing, of course, but it’s also not what we tend to take for granted as justice: a soldier will not have the same rights as a civilian, by design, and Bradley Manning’s trial will not look very much like the kind of trial we, as Americans, like to expect, again, by design.

I don’t say any of this to justify what is being done to Bradley Manning, of course; I’m as appalled as anyone. But let’s look clearly at why it’s being done: the terms through which the military operates – where winning the war means giving up “normal” rights and concerns – make what is happening to him the very opposite of a scandal. It is normal for one person’s rights to be subordinated to some larger social imperative, however defined. This is what the military is, does, and must be. And when we have always tolerated (usually venerated) this non-democratic space at the heart of our democracy, a permanent state of exception to the right of things like trial by jury, this is what will happen as a result. Soldiers don’t live in a democracy; soldiers live in a military dictatorship, one ruled by martial law (in the most literal sense possible).

(Parenthetically, I wonder how much this has to do with why “supporting the troops” is such a powerful moral imperative, even beyond the obvious jingoism. We secretly know that soldiers experience terrible things, are warped and changed and scarred by the experience, and are then discarded from a society that at least took responsibility for them (however paternalistically and non-democratically) and are then left to fend for themselves as individuals in a society that will not. We know they get a raw deal. But rather than change the system we enjoy — which is unthinkable — we deal with the vague nagging, by a substitute of sentimental feeling, which costs nothing and even makes us feel good about ourself; the continuity of an unjust system is fine, as long as I feel bad about the injustice of it, etc).

In any case, the real reason I make this rather simple point because this rhetorical figure – “what nation are we?” – is misleading, in that it takes for granted the singularity of the figure. We have always been two nations when it comes to the military (or poor people, black people, or native peoples, or women, or immigrants without papers, or children, or the insane, etc), and what we should be most concerned about is not the question of who “we” are, but the way the borders which distinguish certain kinds of “we” from certain other kinds of “they” are changing. We have rights; they tend not to. And so the problem is not that someone decided to treat him a certain way; Bradley Manning had already become a “they” with respect to the American constitution a long time ago. The problem is that the nation of they is growing and the nation of we is shrinking.

See also: On the Manning Art. 32, Court Secrecy & Nat. Sec. Cases, who has the careful details on what Manning’s legal process is going to look like, and why.

* But see Why does the media still refer to “Bradley” Manning? The Curious Silence Around a Transgender Hero also  Open secrets and bad feelings: Armistice Day, three days late, from the pansy left