The best way to cope with humiliating military disaster is to find a scapegoat. For the Germans after World War I, it was leftists and Jews who “stabbed the nation in the back”—the Dolchstoßlegende that set the global standard. In the resentful folklore that grows like kudzu around our Vietnam War, American defeat is blamed on the hippies and anti-American journalists who sabotaged a military effort that was on the verge of total victory. (More sophisticated revanchists season this pottage with imprecations against General Westmoreland’s leadership.)
The horrible problem with our Iraq and Afghan wars is that policy elites can’t find anyone to blame for their failure. Widespread fatigue with both wars never translated into an effective antiwar movement with any kind of mass base or high public profile. As for journalists, even liberal media platforms like The New Yorker and MSNBC dutifully mouthed administration propaganda in favor of both wars. (The liability of thoroughly embedded media is that they can’t be blamed for military failure.)
In other words, the usual suspects for stabbing-in-back whodunits all have ironclad alibis. Who will save us from this thoroughly unsatisfying anticlimax?
Enter Pfc. Bradley Manning. In the young Oklahoman we finally have a fall guy for two failed wars against whom Republicans and the deeply compromised Democrats can unite in vindictive harmony. His release of 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks is well under 1 percent of what Washington classified last year, but the moral panic it has generated among American media and policy elites has scratched a certain punitive itch. His thirty-five-year sentence is a sign that he must have done something seriously wrong. Finally, we have held someone responsible.
One almost has to admire the deft disingenuousness of our foreign policy mandarins. Though the real (and ongoing) carnage in Iraq and Afghanistan has elicited only their sulky silence, how they gush with brave humanitarian concern over the purely speculative damage they attribute to Manning and WikiLeaks! Some variation of “He has blood on his hands!” has been shrieked with joy by top civilian and military officials in the Obama administration.
The double-subjunctive mood of “may have put lives at risk of harm” is of course two degrees of reality removed from the actual slaughter that continues in our Afghan War (some 1,600 soldiers dead since Obama took office, and thousands more civilians, without any military or humanitarian gains to show), but no matter. Retired Brigadier General Robert Carr testified in the court-martial that there was no firm evidence of any Afghan civilian harmed by the release of the Afghan War logs. Military judge Denise Lind did not allow most of the State Department’s vaporous speculations of harm to US interests to be admitted as evidence against the young private.
But this doesn’t mean we can’t blame Bradley Manning. After all, he is the only player in the saga of our Iraq War to be prosecuted—or to make a public apology. “I am sorry that my actions hurt people,” said the private, facing a possible ninety years in prison, in an effort to throw himself on the mercy of the judge. After all, no mea culpas have sprung from the lips of George W. Bush or Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld or Condi Rice; not from Bill or Hillary Clinton, both of whom supported the Iraq invasion; not from David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, which editorialized in favor of the war after publishing spurious reports on the links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. Nor has New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who told a bemused Charlie Rose that the United States needed to invade Iraq and tell its troublesome inhabitants to “Suck. On. This.” The Bush/Cheney administration’s torture lawyer Jay Bybee has not apologized, and the feckless Democrats have not apologized for failing to impeach Bybee off the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he now wields immense power, just one judicial layer beneath the Supreme Court of the United States. This long and distinguished list of non-apologies could go on, and on, and on—but fortunately we have found a private to blame.
So thank God for Bradley Manning. Not only did he provide us with hundreds of front-page news stories to enjoy with our morning coffee, he fulfills the sacred role of national scapegoat. All the good people who blame the teachers unions for child poverty and bicycle lanes for bad traffic can now hold Bradley Manning responsible for the military and humanitarian failures of the past decade, for the hundreds of thousands dead, for the trillions of dollars spent, for the long-term public health damage that will give parts of Iraq astronomical rates of birth defects for generations.
As Dolchstoßlegenden go, it’s pretty pathetic. But then our national standards have been slipping and it’s the best we can do. Manning’s thirty-five-year sentence could mean eight or nine more years in prison before release, at which point he will be able to live free, just like George W. Bush and Frank Wuterich, commander of the Marine unit that killed twenty-four civilians in Haditha, Iraq, many of them women and children slaughtered execution style. Manning’s sentence is shameful, cruel and stupid, like our Iraq War itself, to which the prosecution of this patriotic truth-teller is a bitterly appropriate finale.