By Paul Gilmore
Walking into the “dark loser hole” last week was like…well, walking into the bar every other day. All the regulars were there. We had all ducked into the bar to avoid the rain that had been predicted; of course, it wasn’t actually raining yet, but you can never be too sure about such things. Dave, the bartender, was folding freshly laundered bar towels. My buddies Frank Maddox and Medford “Med” Boorman sat at the middle of the bar, drinking their Pabsts, checking their iPhones, occasionally glancing at the TV.
A bar television is a strange thing—it’s always on, but nobody pays attention. And the sound is always off. At this bar, the TV is usually tuned to the Food Channel or sports, but on this day, some screaming-head news channel was on. It’s amazing how much of the story you can get without the volume. Just the basic shots, angles and the facial expressions of the anchors (what a great term—anchors—to describe a class of people who bring our civic debate to this level) tell you just about everything you need to understand the story. Without the sound on, you get the feeling that it’s a rerun, that they use stock footage and have just slightly changed the old script from the 1980s. Nicaragua, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Panama, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Iran…
As I took my place next to Frank and ordered up some of the high life, I noticed the face of a geeky looking kid in a uniform and beret up on the news channel. It was a formal photo against a blue background, a stock-ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen, and a talking head in a box to the right of the photo. I have been trained well—I knew this was either one of the honored dead or somebody under arrest. I put on my glasses and looked more closely: The talking head? Sneering. The photo? Bradley Manning. Ah ha.
The screen cut to the “perp-walk” shot, something that would be repeated several times in the next few minutes as the “news” casters silently shouted at each other. Manning was shown leaving some jail or courtroom and was paraded in front of the cameras, flanked, not by lawyers, but what looked to be giant MPs, guys easily twice Manning’s size (he reminds me of Radar from M*A*S*H).
Med was just about to start in with some rant about the whole scene—he got so far as “Well, Goddam”—when Tommy the Mouth, who I hadn’t even noticed when I walked in, started in. “Goddamn is right! Shitty little traitor’s gonna have to pay now. I hope they string his ass up.”
You must be careful with Tommy the Mouth. As his name implies, he talks. A lot. And when he talks, you can be sure of only one thing—you will always be wrong. Even when you agree with the Mouth, he’ll double-back and contradict himself just to make sure that you are wrong about something. So, to the Mouth, my little response to his statement, “Why?” was not a mere question—it was a challenge, a threat.
“Why what?” He accused. I looked to Frank and Med, to whom the peeling varnish on the bar was suddenly the most interesting thing in the world. No help. I said a prayer and took the leap.
“Why is he a traitor, Tommy?” I asked. “Why should he be strung up?”
“Are you kidding me? You’re gonna defend that little bastard,” he jerked his head to the silent perp-walk footage. “That little shit gave state secrets to the enemy! He’s got American blood on his hands!”
“Well. I’m not exactly defending him yet. I just want to know…”
“American. Blood!” interrupted the Mouth, teeth gritted.
I tried to remain calm. “As I understand it, the accused is alleged by some to have leaked substantial material to Wikileaks.” Why is it that we always start talking like lawyers when talking about these things? “He’s now in the midst of a hearing over whether or not his treatment in his initial incarceration amounted to something like torture.”
“What is it with you whining bleeding heart ACLU types?” the Mouth jumped in. “You’re always crying over the poor treatment of the terrorists. But no concern when they kill thousands of Americans!”
“So now Manning’s a terrorist?” I asked. “For giving stuff to Wikileaks?”
“Yeah. He’s a terrorist. He gave aid and comfort to the enemy.” The Mouth had pulled out the big guns, the dreaded “aid and comfort.” You see, not only is the television news so scripted that you can get the basics without the sound on, our conversations about the news are equally scripted, and this was part of the script. The Mouth and I were just saying our lines.
“First,” I said, sticking fairly closely to the script. “I didn’t know that revealing government criminality to the American people was a bad thing to do. It certainly wouldn’t make him a terrorist in my book. And besides, whose blood is on Manning’s hands—nobody has been harmed? And why does a mere accusation allow his jailers to throw him in isolation and make him stand naked under constant watch and beg for something as simple as toilet paper?”
The Mouth wasn’t backing down. “God. You’re such a whiner. So this skinny little fart is your hero because he’s been forced to stand naked? And since when does some low-level sexually confused intelligence grunt get to decide what’s against the law? He took an oath.”
There it was—the sexuality issue and the “he took an oath” line. We had gone through the basic Bradley Manning repertoire, and now I was supposed to come back with something about a higher authority, conscience and should Germans have remained true to their oaths of loyalty to Hitler, or some such line. Of course, that line would have been seen as Out of Line and there would be an angry, shocked look around the room as if to say, “Did you hear that guy just compare our soldiers to concentration camp killers?!” And then the coup de grace: “You’re lucky those men are over there fighting for your right to talk like that.”
I decided to cut the whole act short: “Hey man, I just came in to get out of the rain.”
“Well,” said the Mouth, unwilling to let it drop. “You can’t just go around having people disobey their sacred oaths—ignoring their duty—and giving aid to the enemy. Freedom isn’t free, man. It takes sacrifice. Manning should have just kept his mouth shut.”
“Duty? Freedom? Sacrifice?! Don’t tell me about his goddam duty, or freedom and sacrifice!” This was Med. Just as I had wound the thing down and was about to suggest switching the channel. Where were you five minutes ago, Med?
“What do you know about sacrifice and freedom compared to Bradley Manning, Tommy?”
“Well. I know who’s my commander-in-”
“Ha.” Med cut him off. When Med gets going, even the Mouth is no match.
“The President’s not YOUR commander-in-chief. You’re a civilian, not in the military. We’re the President’s commanders-in-chief. And if we had done a better job controlling him a decade ago, we wouldn’t have needed Bradley Manning to end the war in Iraq.”
“What are you talking about? Manning didn’t end the war. Obama did.”
“Jeez Mouth. Do I have to spell everything out for you?” This left Tommy speechless—this was the first time anyone called him that to his face—I don’t think he even knew it was his nickname. “Remember that video of that helicopter in Iraq killing those unarmed people, and then killing the people who came to help them? Well. That was Manning that brought that to light.”
“Hell! The Iraqis saw that video and saw all kinds of other evidence from what Manning stole, and they told Obama—who was trying his damnedest to keep us in Iraq—that there was no way they were going to agree to a deal that would give immunity to our soldiers if we stayed. That was the reason we left Iraq! The Iraqis were so upset about these crimes that our own goddam puppet government there couldn’t even give us the guarantees that we needed.”
“We—the citizens—should have found out that information and WE should have demanded an end to that war. But because we were so chicken shit to say anything, we had to rely on some kid, who knew he’d maybe be executed for it, and certainly that he’d get years in jail. We had to rely on that kid to sacrifice everything to do our job for us. No shit, freedom isn’t free.” Med stabbed his finger at the perp-walk video being replayed for the fifth time—“that kid is the only one around who knows the price.”
“He is right now being tried for the crime of delivering to us enormous amounts of evidence of the criminality of our own government. Don’t tell me about ‘heroes’ and duty. I prefer Manning. He’s my American hero. You should read some Thoreau, man! ‘The law never made a man whit more just.’ ‘A natural result of an undue respect for law is that you may see a line of soldiers marching over hill and dale to the wars, against their own consciences. Now, what are they? Men at all? Nope!’ But Manning? I say that Bradley Manning is the only free human being around!”
“So,” said Dave the bartender, reaching for the remote, ending the rant. “Let’s watch the Iron Chef.” And we all turned our attention to good old Bobby Flay.
Paul Gilmore teaches history at Fresno City College. Contact him at email@example.com. Full disclosure: He likes Thoreau and typically agrees with Medford Boorman.
Bradley Manning. Photograph by Mark Wilson/Getty Images