The current trial of Bradley Manning is seen by many as the trial of a traitor. As such it brings into sharp focus what seems to be a contradiction in American patriotic values.
What is not so clear from this case is that a significant number of Americans proud themselves on a strong patriotic individualism and the core principle of accountability for federal government. Other issues like Healthcare – or ‘Obamacare’ as it’s critics name it – and gun control have highlighted this.
This leads to me to ask, why do Americans not extend this same level of transparency to America’s military machine when it is to all purposes a part of the federal government? More specifically it is under control of the Department of Defence. In this context could it be that patriotism has been strengthened inexorably in the context of the ‘war on terror’ where is there no room for citizens to be critical?
It is telling that the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11 seemed to have gone by without controversy despite its extensive impact on civil liberties in areas of surveillance and access to records. If the 2004 Patriot Act is necessary then why does a database of registered gun owners seem so threatening to certain conservative voices. Under this act the FBI can target and search any suspected individuals house or business without notification or a search warrant. Indeed there have been several reported examples of the FBI investigating and raiding the homes of anti-war activists as late as 2010 and onwards in attempt to obtain evidence of ‘terrorist’ activities. This has been highlighted by both the NY Times and the American organisation Democracy Now.
It is true that in recent days there has been new scrutiny regarding the extent of counter-terrorism surveillance which has forced both President Obama and the US National Director of Intelligence to defend the work of the relevant agencies. Yet it is also true that despite the emboldened tactics and actions carried out by the FBI as described above and other intelligence agencies since 2004 this has drawn,in contrast, little controversy in the mainstream media over the last 9 years.
50 years ago the Vietnam war is perceived by many to have been lost due to unpopularity and unrest at home rather than a true military defeat. The voice of dissent was in this context both significant and effective. The difference with the war on terror, perhaps, is that Islamic terrorism is perceived as both a external and internal threat to the american way of life at home while the link to Vietnam came through TV images from the other side of the world. Recent events like the Boston Bombing has most likely only strengthened a fear of the current level of threat.
In the UK, where there is a less ingrained distrust of the government, hundreds of thousands of individuals united to march against the decision of Prime Minister Tony Blair to join with America in the Iraq War. Such dissent in America would have been sufficient to be labelled as ‘enemies of the state’, as prominent conservative figure Bill O’Reilly described protestors in America. In 2003 he stated on his Fox show.
“Once the war against Saddam Hussein begins, we expect every American to support our military, and if you can’t do that, just shut up. Americans, and indeed our foreign allies who actively work against our military once the war is underway, will be considered enemies of the state by me”
This seems at odds when conservative attitudes seem to disregard or at the most extreme wish the state to be rendered ineffective in other areas.
Susan Brewer, Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point provides an intriguing explanation in her book Why America Fights for the American people’s strong support of their military. She appears to argue that because the wars America fights are perceived to be intrinsically related to their core values of freedom and democracy their motives are not so scrutinised. As holders of what are seen as superior and exceptional values their nation therefore has the responsibility to extend these privileges to other nations. If its citizens were to be more self-critical of their nations long history however they would perhaps come to the view that their values are not so exceptionally superior.
In addition to Susan Brewers points you could also argue that such a defence of the military is because american citizens – sister’s, brothers, mothers and fathers – constitute its personnel but as drone attacks illustrate the importance of orders from military officials based in the USA are becoming more relevant on the far away battlefield where drones replace human soldiers. The involvement of private interests such as Blackwater USA also brings into question the motives and influence of third-party elements and thereby muddles the entire dynamic.
Furthermore if the american military is such a part of the United States patriotic values should it not be critical for its citizens to know as much about their actions, motives and its impacts as possible? After all, this is the same patriotism which compels many to protect their constitutional right to own personal firearm’s, to defend themselves against the threat of a dictatorship like that which existed before the american revolution. In addition it is a driving factor behind the powerful gun lobby that has such great influence on the broader gun debate in America.
If we looker closer at the very same constitution we see that it actually places limitations on a standing army. Article 1, Section 8, Clause 12 states “The Congress shall have Power To …raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years”. Anti-federalists at the time of the constitutions drafting like James Burgh, in his Political Disquisitions (1774), called a “standing army in times of peace, one of the most hurtful, and most dangerous of abuses.” The Anti-Federalist paper. A Democratic Federalist called a standing army “that great support of tyrants.” Collectively they preferred that the of the nation remain entirely with the state militias.
Therefore if the right to bear arms keeps the government in check then why not be more suspicious of what is in our time one of the worlds largest and most powerful military forces. In this context elements of the right-wing thinking criticise Obama for proposing to decrease military spending because it would in their view weaken national security. Yet they also criticises him for calling for more effective gun laws.
In this wider social and political climate Bradley Manning is surely aiding the very idea of patriotic individualism by bringing his superiors to account, not the ‘enemy’.