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Honor isn’t that complicated

January 18, 2017

So, President Obama has elected to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning. You may remember Manning better as Bradley Manning, the name by which he was known when he was arrested in 2010 for leaking classified information to WikiLeaks. I’ve been reading articles on various social media and news sites as well as on a lot of blogs. The differences of opinion are interesting, to say the least. Some people suggest Manning should have been executed or at least made to serve the duration of the sentence handed down. Others view Manning as a hero.

I grew up in a family of printers. I spent my early years in and around newspapers and print shops. As a result, I have an appreciation for just how important it is that some information, including some that is classified, get to the American public. But…

I served in the military for 22 years, beginning as a seaman recruit in the USCG and retiring from the US Navy as a lieutenant. The willingness of some people to leak classified information dismays me. In many cases, there seems to be a profound lack of understanding of just how many people can be endangered, just how many can die, as a result of such leaks. To me, if it becomes a question of preserving the lives of my fellow Americans or the lives of those who are citizens of a nation with which we are at war, there is no question.

I think for many people, this is just too ugly a thing to contemplate. The fact is, war is an ugly thing. It is far uglier than many can imagine and it requires the people fighting it to do things they would rather not do. For a nation to fight and win a war with the populace aware of just how horrible it is would require the citizens to make a commitment to some things being done they’d probably rather not know about. Here’s an example of what I mean: A few years ago, I was watching a documentary (on the History Channel, perhaps?) about World War II. One of the comments made was that the US and Britain had decided, early on, that they would win the war, even if it meant killing every man, woman and child of Japanese extraction on the planet. When I’ve spoken to people who were alive back then, they have agreed that was the mindset of both the general population and the majority of Americans. I have some serious doubts most Americans today would make such a commitment to winning a war.

The alternative then, aside from security concerns, is that some things simply aren’t discussed, at least at the time, with the public. A former Marine I know, then, simply doesn’t talk much about firing a machine gun into a village because it was thought to be a hiding place for NVA troops. He tried, years ago, only to learn it was far more than most non-military  people could understand or stomach. The cold, hard truth is that war does not only affect military personnel. It never has and it never will (the implications of this for those who seem sometimes so eager for war is a topic for another time, perhaps).

One of the points of contention in the debate has been the oath Bradley Manning took. I see the word “honor” tossed about by those on both sides of the debate. The oath, and the concept of honor, are central to this debate. Manning, like all US service members, swore to “…support and defend the Constitution…” Here, to me, is where we get to the crux of the matter. All the stuff about risk, danger, the purpose of classifying information and what the American people are willing to commit to, is really just setting the stage. It all comes down to the oath and honor.

The oath to the Constitution is absolute. Its wording permits no exceptions. There is no “expect under these circumstances” clause. The oath binds one, not to a political leader, not to a military service, but to the Constitution. What, then, is one to do if in his opinion, obedience to regulations or orders would lead to a violation of the oath? To paraphrase my class officer, LT King, “you honor your oath no matter what. You honor it over rule, regulation, chain of command and service. Just don’t expect anybody to like it if you have to go that far. They might, but I wouldn’t count on it.” I can’t put it better than that. The same thing is true as regards a person’s personal ethics and sense of honor. Most of us will hopefully never be in a situation in which we are faced with almost overwhelming pressure to violate our true core values, those values on which there is no compromise (if you contend, accurately, you have no core values, then the whole discussion of honor is probably a waste of time for you, anyway). If you are, my advice would be the same as that of LT King. Honor your core values, no matter what. Just don’t expect others to like your decision. They might, but I wouldn’t necessarily count on it.

This, I submit, is what a good part of the debaters are missing about this issue. It may be that Manning felt either his oath or his personal ethics obligated him to leak the information he leaked. I would almost certainly feel otherwise, but so what? This sort of decision is one made by the individual, not by people quarterbacking on Monday morning. People who are calling his release a good thing, claiming his actions were honorable, overlook an obvious fact: He violated the UCMJ. He released information that had to potential to endanger not just lives, but American lives, specifically the lives of Americans who wore the same uniform he wore. You want to call his actions honorable? Fine. Have at it. Just don’t expect others to agree or like his decision and actions.

I don’t find his actions honorable. He endangered other American lives. People say things that seek to seem deep and insightful, but that really just serve to needlessly cover up simple truths. “American lives are no more important than the lives of people in other countries” is a fine example. It’s also a lie. As a general rule, if I must choose between saving the lives of Americans or the lives of people from other nations, I’ll choose Americans. If I must choose between saving the lives of my family or those in other families, I’ll choose my family. As regards family, at least, so most likely will you. Anything else is madness, unpatiotic and dishonorable.

This rant is entitled “Honor isn’t that complicated.” That’s true. Honor isn’t complicated. It’s simple. Simple, however, doesn’t mean easy. People want easy, not simple. Easy has no risk. Easy places you in no danger. Simple, on the other hand, leaves you with no room to hide. Simple reveals you for who and what you are.

NOTE: This article does not, at all, deal with whether the war with which Manning was concerned should have been fought. That is an important discussion, albeit a separate one.


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  1. He did violate his oath, period, end of discussion. He should have been HAPPY he only got 35 years and not the death penalty he deserved.

    • I find nothing honorable in his actions. Nor do I buy the argument his actions were justified by his attempt to honor his oath, especially given the terms of the enlistment oath. I took both of them. They do differ, somewhat. I think that’s an excuse for otherwise inexcusable actions, even though other people disagree. Frankly, I’m surprised he’s still able to fog a mirror.

    • I’ll go one further. Typically, what we’ll hear, when people attempt to defend the indefensible, is that “he’s always been a person of strong principles and conviction.” Fine. I’ll take any provable, concrete examples of such strong convictions as evidence that perhaps Manning had such. That changes nothing. Besides, contrary to what some have suggested, had Manning wanted out of the Army badly enough (supposedly during basic training), it’s not that hard to get out.

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