The Passion of Christ is the story of Jesus from the conspiracy against him unto his crucifixion and death. It is a somewhat fitting analogy of the story of Bradley Manning—an erratically gifted iconoclast who acted in compliance with his conscience and was vilified and tortured by the temporal powers that be.
The fitness of the analogy makes it all the more unfortunate that Chase Madar, author of The Passion of Bradley Manning, doesn’t continue the theme through the book. In fact, that is one of several frustrating elements of this book, which is nevertheless very good. Its weakness lies in being too brief, too broad, each new area—particularly the last two chapters—whetting the appetite without satisfying it. But more about that later.
The Passion begins with a five-point argument for Manning deserving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s not a particularly strong argument, largely because that particular award is frequently given on suspect grounds, but it is a clever way of framing a summary of the author’s arguments. It is also a nicely transparent window into Madar’s point of view, which is unapologetically hagiographic. Given Madar’s straightforward arguments and extensive endnotes, the book’s thesis is better defended by Madar’s acknowledgement of where he is coming from. This is especially true since the point of view is not partisan, but equally scathing of all parties’ treatment of his subject.
In the second chapter, Madar gives a biography of Bradley Manning, interspersed—as each chapter is prefixed by—some of the “unauthenticated” chat logs which allegedly record Manning’s conversations with Adrian Lamo, the Judas of the piece. It was Lamo who reported Manning to the authorities. While the book as a whole advocates for the position that Manning’s famous leaking of classified documents was righteous, Madar doesn’t appear to sugarcoat the troubled youth and tumultuous personal history that came before. If Madar is painting Manning as a saint, he is a saint along the checkered-past, Augustinian model rather than one of the simpering lily-white crowd. Manning was a typical gifted, anti-establishment loner who had difficulty with patience, focus, and authority. His joining the Army would have been completely against character, except that his father had served which provided some link. Also, Manning was explicitly patriotic. He wasn’t a jingoist, and he didn’t believe in “my country right or wrong”, but rather that he had an obligation to make his country righter.
Madar lays out Manning’s increasing disillusionment with his role in the military. He was particularly troubled by his unit’s role in war crimes and complicity with the Iraqi authorities’ crimes. He tried to send his concerns up the chain of command, and was slapped down—just as many other “complainers” and whistleblowers to whom Madar refers.
The chapter ends with a summary of Manning’s treatment and the hyperbolic reactions to his alleged deeds, including numerous calls for his execution. From summer 2010 until Madar finished his book, Manning was held in frankly bizarre conditions at Quantico. He was held on “Prevention of Injury” watch, despite not being suicidal, which included such odd rules as not being able to exercise in his cell, a pointlessly strict agenda for each day, and having to answer “Are you okay?” of some variant every five minutes from 5:00 am until 8:00 pm every day.
Madar also delves into Manning’s sexuality, but only to comment on the commentary, and how desperately irrelevant it was. He put this to high—it is hopelessly naïve to think that in this post-Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, wrangling over DOMA era, that Manning’s sexuality wouldn’t be the subject of commentary, and frankly over simplistic to assume that his middle-American upbringing as an LGBT person would not have as much an effect on his decisions as any other aspect of his development and personality. But he is right to decry the clichéd stance of homophobic right-wingers who insist on linking Manning’s allegedly depraved acts with his supposedly depraved lifestyle (ironically, Manning’s sexuality doesn’t appear to have been a major issue to the military, as he himself has said).
After the biography, Madar moves on to a summary of the leaks themselves, and a brief history of whistle-blowing in America. It is not an uplifting narrative. Madar contrasts the emphasis the American Founding Father’s put on transparency in government against the current compulsive classification of any and every document. Conversely, declassification is so slow that documents from WWI remain classified. Information on the public record—including information on the public record, having been the subject of testimony in public Congress hearings—remains technically under wraps. At the same time, Madar highlights the hypocrisy of current and past regimes intentionally leaking information for their own benefit while simultaneously crushing anyone who leaks outside the lines. He gives numerous examples over two chapters. Sadly, they are not footnoted, and his “Endnotes” are, in fact, a bibliography, making follow-up research slightly more difficult than necessary. Depressingly, Madar also argues that leaks and whistle-blowers frequently do very little good, including famous leaks like the Pentagon Papers.
But far and away the best—and most indignant-making, frustratingly brief, and sadly un-footnoted—section of this book are “The Torture of Bradley Manning” and “The Rule of Law and Bradley Manning”. In these chapters, Madar paints a sobering picture of the many ways in which Manning’s case is not only not unique, but is emblematic of the American justice system. In fact, Madar goes further, exploring how all the excesses of the War on Terror— torture, lack of due process, hideous prison conditions, reliance on forced confessions, et cetera—have been and continue to be a disturbingly frequent characteristic of law and order in America. Just as prosecutors have quit in disgust at Guantanamo, so do have they done so in other, “normal” jurisdictions. He points out that the rule of law has been on tenuous footing in America for generations. Painting Manning’s case, and the other “War on Terror” cases, as exceptional allows us to overlook the systematic problems with the justice system as a whole. Furthermore, it provides a tidy rallying point for outraged liberals whose efforts would be better spent—but would rarely be found—in the daily drudgery of public and pro bono defense of prisoners and vulnerable minorities all over the United States. While Madar doesn’t address Canada specifically, it would be obtuse to think his arguments don’t apply here as well.