By John Grant (photos by John Grant), In the Mind Field. December 18, 2011

Photos of Bradley, the vigil and rally, and courtroom sketches from the pre-trial hearing at Fort Meade

Saturday, December 17th was Bradley Manning’s 24th birthday, and at least 300 supporters gathered outside Fort Meade, Maryland, where the military was in its second day of a preliminary hearing process that’s expected to take about a week. Manning worked in military intelligence and is alleged to have released military secrets to WikiLeaks, which released the material publicly.

After collecting at the main gate, Manning supporters set off for a two-mile march to a gate nearer the military hearing site. The group was quite spirited and, despite Anne Arundel County Police efforts to keep marchers on the sidewalk, insisted on taking up a lane of the street. The police wisely did not attempt to stop them and there were no problems.

A friend and I had driven down from Philadelphia and arrived early for the gathering. At the local Dunkin Donut we found ourselves in line behind two Anne Arundel County officers there to pick up their daily allotment of donuts. The men were friendly and we chatted about being there for the Manning demonstration. They proudly told us the department had provided two porta-potties for the convenience of demonstrators. They told us to be safe and stay on the sidewalk.

A witness to Friday’s opening day of the hearing said, despite nasty and shameful treatment by the military early in his captivity, Manning looked healthy and chatted easily with his attorneys. He notably made no eye-contact and in no way acknowledged the many sympathizers in the courtroom — a prudent decision, no doubt, made by his attorneys, given the Kafkaesque reality of being a prisoner of the US military circa 2011.

Manning’s attorneys made a number of motions, all or most of which were rejected; I was told only two of 38 requested witnesses for Manning were allowed by the military judges. When the Friday hearing was over and people were filing out, Veterans For Peace Board Member Nate Goldshlag hollered “Bradley Manning is a hero!” This was too much for military authorities, and Goldshlag was told never to return to the hearings. (Anyone can attend the hearings; those interested should be at the Fort Meade gate by 7AM and ask where to go from there. No electronics allowed, and of course silence is the rule.)

Following the spirited march, a number of veteran and activist speakers addressed the crowd, speaking of Manning’s individual courage and the absurdities of the secrecy-obsessed National Security State system in whose clutches he resides. After the final speaker singer-songwriter Dave Rovics led the group in singing Happy Birthday to Manning.

Above: Dan Choi speaks to the crowd. Choi is a West Point graduate who served as an infantry officer in Iraq in 2006-07. He came out as gay on the Rachel Maddow Show and was immediately discharged. Manning is gay, and Choi spoke about what it was like being gay and serving in Iraq.

Above, left to right: Jeff Paterson of Courage To Resist and The Bradley Manning Support Network. Veterans Ward Reilly, John Penley and Bill Perry praise Manning. Military interrogator Michael Patterson, 21 tells what it was like working in military intelligence in Iraq, in similar circumstances as Manning.

Above, left to right: Former US Army Colonel Ann Wright talked about the heroism and suffering of young Bradley Manning; former CIA analyst Ray McGovern spoke about the fundamental absurdity of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen saying Bradley Manning “has blood on his hands.” For the top general who, until recently, ran and maintained the wars in question to accuse a whistleblower of having blood on HIS hands was, to McGovern, a joke of pure hubris. Singer-songwriter Dave Rovics sang a ballad about Bradley Manning.

Why All the Fuss About Bradley Manning?

What exactly is Manning alleged to have done? The military as an institution, of course, has its own self-serving, legalistic narrative. Others — those demonstrating, for example — look at it in human terms. Many feel Manning fits the criteria of a “whistleblower” who (allegedly) provided WikiLeaks — and ultimately The New York Times and dozens of other mainstream news outlets — with “secret” cable information and details on how our government acts in our name around the world.

Several young vets who served in military intelligence in Iraq have told me that basically all information concerning our wars is now recorded on the military’s version of the internet. This means that virtually anything and everything actual that happens is internally controlled and secret. This information is, then, parsed and routed into two distinct modes: Secrecy and Public Relations. The American public gets the latter.

The actions Bradley Manning allegedly undertook clearly upsets this formula. Thus, to set a bad example the military must take harsh measures with Manning.

Since WikiLeaks released the secret cable traffic, a week has not gone by that at least one New York Times reporter has not cited some bit of WikiLeaks information inside his or her story. So, while Manning rots in prison and has to fight for his life, mainstream media reporters continue to use the material he allegedly provided — as a better-informed American population benefits from that information.

While benefiting, many of mainstream press outlets avoid the real story and the ideas involved and say noting about how Manning is being hung out to dry. If that’s not bad enough, what’s really absurd is after all this material has been made public members of the military are under orders to act as if it’s still a big secret; it’s like making everybody in uniform act like Sergeant Shultz in Hogan’s Heroes: “I see nah-thing!”

Michael Moore recently connected some dots and suggested how powerful Manning’s alleged actions have been. He suggests the WikiLeaks cables from the US ambassador to Tunisia discussing the corruption of the Ben Ali government had a powerful impact in Tunisia. When vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, the dry tinder had been set by WikiLeaks for a major political conflagration.

“It was [Manning’s] courageous action that was the tipping point — and it was not surprising when the dictator of Tunisia censored all news of the Wikileaks documents Manning had allegedly supplied. But the internet took Manning’s gift and spread it throughout Tunisia, a young man set himself on fire and the Arab Spring that led eventually to Zuccotti Park has a young, gay soldier in the United States Army to thank.”

We all know the modern scientific notion of a butterfly’s wing action compounding over time and space into a major hurricane in the northern hemisphere. The fact is Bradley Manning’s alleged actions were important, and the military’s reaction makes that clear. Manning was motivated by interests of revealing Truth in a troubling regime of secrecy, while our military is motivated by a desire to hold onto the Power that regime of secrecy gives it. It is actually an interesting and profound confrontation.

A popular Occupy Movement t-shirt simply says: “Stay Human.” Everyone demonstrating on Saturday outside the Fort Meade base was determined to follow that dictum, one that Manning seems to have followed as well. They made it clear they felt Bradley Manning, when faced with organized dehumanization, acted as a true human and for that reason was an American Hero.

John Grant is a veteran, a writer and a photographer. At age 19, he was a radio direction finder in Vietnam, working in the mountains west of Pleiku to locate enemy radio operators. He returned to the US and, then, read and learned what the war was really about; he has been a member of Veterans For Peace since 1985. He did documentary photography in Central America during the wars there and has traveled twice to the war zone in Iraq, as well as to numerous other places around the world. He has taught creative writing in a Philadelphia prison for ten years.