Private Bradley Manning: A victim of the military empire?

“It is indispensable to our success in this war that those we ask to fight it know that in the discharge of their dangerous responsibilities to their country they are never expected to forget that they are Americans, and the valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should govern their own affairs and their relations with others—even our enemies.”—John McCain, “Torture’s Terrible Toll”

Depending on your view of the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and America’s role in them, Pfc. Bradley E. Manning, the 23-year-old Army soldier who is accused of “aiding the enemy” by leaking classified military and diplomatic documents to the anti-secrecy website, WikiLeaks, is either a courageous whistleblower or a traitorous snitch. Manning is alleged to have leaked over 250,000 United States diplomatic cables, as well as footage of an American Apache helicopter airstrike in Baghdad from July 12, 2007, in which 18 people were killed, many of them civilians. Two of those killed were Reuters journalists. If convicted, Manning could face the death penalty.

There can be no doubt that Manning’s inhumane treatment by the U.S. government is intended to send a clear warning to all those who would challenge the military empire—“DON’T EVEN CONSIDER IT.” Manning, a slight, 5’2,” 105-pound intelligence analyst, has been held in maximum solitary confinement (his escape would supposedly pose a national security risk) at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia, since July 2010—treatment normally reserved for the most violent or dangerous of criminals.

As Glenn Greenwald of Salon observes, Manning has been “subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America’s Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything. And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.”

Imprisoned in a windowless, 6 x 12 foot cell containing a bed, a drinking fountain and a toilet, Manning has been kept under Suicide and/or Prevention of Injury (POI) watch during his incarceration, largely against the advice of two forensic psychiatrists. Under suicide watch, Manning has been confined to his tiny cell for 23 hours a day and stripped of all clothing with the exception of his underwear. His prescription eyeglasses were taken away, leaving him in essential blindness except for those limited times when he is permitted to read or watch television, at which time his glasses are returned to him. A guard is stationed outside Manning’s cell at all times. In a thinly veiled attempt to harass the young man, guards check on Manning every five minutes, asking if he is okay. He is not allowed to have a pillow or sheets, but he currently has a mattress that has a built-in pillow and two blankets.

Things are not much better for Manning under POI watch. As his attorney, David Coombs, points out, he is forced to remain in his cell for 23 hours a day. He is not allowed to have personal items in the cell, and is only allowed to have one book or one magazine at any time to read in the cell. He is not allowed to exercise in his cell and if he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups or any other form of exercise, he will be forced to stop by the brig guards. He gets one hour of exercise outside of his cell daily, so his exercise routine consists of him walking around in figure eights in an empty room for an hour. When he goes to sleep, he must strip down to his underwear and surrender his clothing to the guards. If he falls asleep with a blanket over his head or curled up toward the wall, the guards wake him up.

Most recently, it was revealed that Manning was stripped and left naked in his cell for seven hours, after which time he was made to stand naked outside his cell during an inspection—allegedly part of an effort by the government aimed at pressuring Manning to identify others involved in the WikiLeaks case. The tactic is certainly not a new one. Indeed, as one investigative news source pointed out, the forced nudity recalls “how the Bush administration used nudity and other abusive tactics to break down ‘war on terror’ detainees. In 2004, the CIA told President George W. Bush’s lawyers how useful forced nudity was for instilling ‘learned helplessness’ in prisoners.”

The American government, of course, insists that such treatment does not rise to the level of torture. In fact, Col. T. V. Johnson, a Quantico spokesman, characterized charges that Manning has been mistreated as “poppycock.” After all, Manning is not being starved, beaten or waterboarded. He’s merely been denied human interaction and the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment. Yet as surgeon Atul Gawande points out in a 2009 article for the New Yorker, solitary confinement rises to the level of torture: “A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than [John] McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.”

There was a time in our nation’s history—long before the abuses at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and before we were reprogrammed to think of such practices as waterboarding as benign forms of legalized torture—that even solitary confinement was frowned upon. The United States Supreme Court even came close to declaring it unconstitutional in 1890 and went so far as to compare it to “[t]he rack, the thumbscrew, [and] the wheel” in its 1940 decision in Chambers v. Florida. Unfortunately, that perception of solitary confinement as torture changed with the rise in popularity of American supermax prisons, designed specifically for mass solitary confinement, in the late 20th century. As Gawande writes:

Public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities . . .

Which brings us back to Bradley Manning, a young man who hoped to “change something” by exposing what he saw as widespread government corruption. Whether or not Manning is shown to be the source of the leaks, there can be no denying that the information made public by Wikileaks has painted a damning picture of a U.S. government operating in a way that is completely at odds with everything this nation once stood for.

Yet the key here is that Manning, an American citizen entitled to every protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution, has yet to be convicted of anything, which makes his pre-trial incarceration that much more troubling. Moreover, not only does such cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment violate a long list of international human rights treaties, but as Greenwald points out, “[s]ubjecting a detainee like Manning to this level of prolonged cruel and inhumane detention can thus jeopardize the ability of the U.S. to secure extradition for other prisoners, as these conditions are viewed in much of the civilized world as barbaric.”

In fact, John McCain, who experienced torture and solitary confinement during his imprisonment in Vietnam, noted in a 2005 Newsweek editorial, “We are American, and we hold ourselves to humane standards of treatment of people no matter how evil or terrible they may be. To do otherwise undermines our security, but it also undermines our greatness as a nation. We are not simply any other country. We stand for something more in the world—a moral mission, one of freedom and democracy and human rights at home and abroad . . . It is indispensable to our success in this war that those we ask to fight it know that in the discharge of their dangerous responsibilities to their country they are never expected to forget that they are Americans, and the valiant defenders of a sacred idea of how nations should govern their own affairs and their relations with others—even our enemies.”

Sadly, we in America have conveniently forgotten that we once stood for something more than a warring military empire. Indeed, in our once-stalwart defense of human rights, our adherence to a moral code that was rooted in a respect for human life, and our willingness to lead the world by example through innovation and progress in science and the arts, we were the antithesis of all that America—now the largest international exporter of weapons and war—has come to stand for today.

About John W. Whitehead: Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book “The Freedom Wars” (TRI Press) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at

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