In the years BM (Before Manning), the West was a complacent, Panglossed place. The war in Afghanistan, for instance, was accepted as a necessary phase of the much-praised ‘war on terror’. Likewise, the Iraq War was judged just, a good fight led by the US and the UK in the interests of freedom, democracy and security. In fact, in the era BM, it often seemed that the US, the UK and the rest of the coalition of the virtuous could do no wrong.
And then in 2010, a then-22-year-old Bradley Manning, a private in the US army, opened our eyes. That is, he downloaded thousands of classified US state documents, put them on CD entitled ‘Lady Gaga’, and passed them on to Wikileaks’ head apostle, Julian Assange, who then, through a few wise media outlets (the Guardian, the New York Times, Der Spiegel), let everyone know the truth. This was the moment we realised that the US army was in fact embroiled in a bloody mess in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This was how we learned that Western states’ foreign policy was not always for the best in the best of all possible worlds. And all this was down to the sacrifice of one man: Private Manning.
Or at least that seems to be the narrative being spun by Manning’s supporters as his sentencing for espionage approaches its conclusion. What’s odd, of course, is that in reality, it’s difficult to work out what exactly Manning revealed that was, well, revelatory. Yes, he did pass on footage of an American Apache helicopter crew shooting dead civilians in Iraq in 2007 - the one leak that Manning’s champions always mention. But did this really tell us anything new about the Iraq War, a conflict that many, spiked included, had criticised since before it even started in 2003? In fact, aside from the axis of delusion formed by ex-British prime minister Tony Blair and ex-US president George W Bush, who in 2010 did not think that the Iraq War was a brutal, calamitous mistake? The truth is that Manning’s leaked documents revealed very little in the way, well, of truth. They simply did not tell us anything we didn’t already know about US foreign policy, from Guantanamo Bay to the war in Afghanistan.
What Manning’s documents did reveal, however, was diplomatic gossip. And lots of it. That was what everyone really remembers about the Manning-inspired Wikileaks dump of 2010: US diplomats’ pen portraits of Johnny Foreigner. There was the description of Italy’s then-president Silvio Berlusconi as ‘vain, feckless, weak’; the image of the ‘thin-skinned and authoritarian’ French president Nicolas Sarkozy; and the less-than-flattering aside about North Korea’s Kim Jong-il - ‘a flabby old chap’. This was not a piece of investigative journalism, unveiling America’s shocking secret foreign-policy rationale; it was a voyeuristic glimpse into US diplomacy’s private chambers. Not only that, the sometimes acerbic observations about many a liberal bête noir, from Vladimir Putin to China, massaged prejudices rather than challenging preconceptions. Little wonder that quite a few commentators admitted they were impressed by the diplomats’ sound judgements.
And yet, despite the utterly unrevelatory, paradigm-staying nature of Manning’s leaked documents, plonked self-aggrandisingly into the public domain by Assange and his journalistic fellow-travellers, there are many in the right-thinking set who continue to insist on Manning’s importance, on the significance of his plight. Why, given the content of Manning’s ‘Lady Gaga’ CD was so gossipy and un-shocking, has he assumed this role?