The Common Good
July 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land

by Evan Knappenberger | July 2011

A former Army intelligence analyst in Iraq talks about Bradley Manning, the weight of conscience, and the witness of St. Paul.

In April 2011, producers at PBS' documentary news show Frontline requested an interview with me in my capacity as a former U.S. Army intelligence analyst. They were filming a special called "WikiSecrets" about alleged whistleblower Bradley Manning, Army intelligence culture, and WikiLeaks. At more than one point in the process, PBS producers asked if I was absolutely sure I was ready to share information that the Pentagon had repeatedly warned me not to talk about. Was I ready to risk jail for appearing to violate the Army nondisclosure agreement that all soldiers sign?

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There are very few analysts -- current or former -- who are willing to speak openly about their experiences in Iraq, according to the Frontline representatives. To defend Manning and tell the truth about the military culture of corruption, I had to dig pretty deep and be willing to risk a charge of violating the nondisclosure agreement. But this is something I did deliberately, out of conscience. According to my lawyer, I could get 10 years in federal prison just for talking about my experiences.

To the news media, those who are privileged insiders in military intelligence are valuable resources; to those in political power, the threat of transparency makes us a liability. Translators and military intelligence specialists are traumatized in unique way. While doing some of the dirtiest work in the "global war on terror," we are coerced into morally and ethically dangerous situations and intimidated into silence.

The untold story is that the U.S. military intelligence community is rife with trauma that few outsiders understand, a suffering kept secret by the authorities in part because of its fundamentally transformative power.

I was 17 when I joined the Army in 2003. I had barely graduated from high school, but had high aptitude scores -- something the Army was looking for. Novelist and pop philosopher Ayn Rand had me convinced that I was justified in my choice to make a violent living using guns and computers. I was excited to mete out justice like a John Wayne cowboy or a Jack Bauer operative.

During my first week in basic training, I watched a man nearly die of pneumonia and heat stroke in the Missouri sun at Fort Leonard Wood. The drill sergeants ridiculed him as a "faker" when he collapsed following a strenuous forced march. He fell face first on the pavement and lay there, twitching. The drill sergeants screamed and spat in my face when I helped drag him into the shade. I remember pouring water on the man and loading him into the back of a truck. After a leisurely drive by a drill sergeant to the base hospital, I carried the man inside on my back. "It's really bad this time," said the doctor.

Later I asked the drill sergeant how I could trust her with my life when she almost let him die. "Private," she told me, "if you died tonight, we’d go right on without you in the morning."

The Army taught us well that human lives were of little consequence, that humanity itself was a concept of the weak and the broken.

By the time I was 20, I had a rifle and a top-secret security clearance. My mission in Iraq? "Win the war on terror."

My first night at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, I watched grizzled soldiers kick in the door to an Iraqi home and drag out a teenage boy in his underwear. I watched as they questioned him for hours, allowing him to be smacked around by an Iraqi interpreter who was probably a former neighbor of the boy. Soon I was leading my own interrogation sessions to provide fresh intelligence to my unit. I helped the command staff plan operations for bringing in more Iraqis for questioning.

I also worked as a targeting analyst compiling intelligence data for "preparation of the battlefield." In this, I weighed the lives of my fellow human beings -- military and civilian, American and Iraqi -- and decided fates with the stroke of a pen. By my 21st birthday I was responsible for many deaths. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military kills innocent civilians as well as armed combatants. Like the military, I never kept count of the lives I helped to end.

The Army, supported by the voting public, was happy to pack me off to play God with a gun and a laptop, inadequate training, and little guidance. I was a stranger in a strange land, unprepared for the terrible weight of moral ambiguity that my country hung around my neck and unprepared for its corrosive effect on my soul.

Another Army intelligence analyst -- 23-year-old Bradley Manning of Crescent, Oklahoma -- was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 on suspicion of releasing restricted military documents to the WikiLeaks website. For outing war crimes and causing a year-long public-affairs crisis for the State and Defense departments, Manning spent nearly 10 months in maximum-security, solitary confinement at the Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia. Stripped naked at night and forcibly sleep-deprived, his conditions were so severe that Amnesty International and the ACLU decried them as torture. In April, after international outcry, he was finally moved to Leavenworth prison where he is being held under more humane conditions.

Though several years apart, Manning and I went through the same training course at Fort Leonard Wood and the same intelligence analysis school at Fort Huachuca. We both struggled with the arbitrary and reckless military discipline. I have taken action against military abuses for reasons of conscience, and Bradley is alleged to have done so as well. I suspect that we are both riddled through with the guilty realization that we were forced to kill our fellow beings in support of indefensible policies.

By delegating to our children the power of life and death -- whether directly or through the intelligence apparatus -- we make them proxy agents whom we can then praise as heroes or write off as "bad apples," depending on the direction of the political wind at any given moment.

According to news reports, Manning had a transformative conscientious awakening when he found himself responsible for the unjust imprisonment of 15 Iraqi activists. When he determined that the pamphlets they were distributing were not "terrorist tracts," but instead highlighted corruption in the al-Maliki government, Manning took the information directly to his commanding officer. "He didn't want to hear any of it," he reportedly wrote. "He told me to shut up and explain how we could assist the [Iraqi Federal Police] in finding more detainees."

Manning also allegedly discovered classified footage taken from Army Apache helicopters during a 2007 air-to-ground attack near Baghdad that killed two Reuters correspondents and at least 10 others, and wounded two children. Manning's arrest came after he allegedly took responsibility for the 2010 release of what came to be called the "Collateral Murder" video.

If the government's claims about Manning’s actions are true, then I believe he acted in disobedience against what he perceived to be an unjust and immoral authority. It's also clear that his pre-trial punishment was intentionally symbolic, as well as inhumane; it was a warning to the many other would-be whistleblowers and abused soldiers.

The U.S. military classifies virtually everything in war as an official state secret. All soldiers must sign nondisclosure agreements upon return from overseas duties. In effect, this outlaws any dialogue about the wars. It silences the most direct criticisms from the participants of the wars themselves. It also creates a despondent and dehumanizing loneliness in veterans, who are unable to share their experiences.

Many of my friends who went to Iraq in an intelligence capacity are now dead, disabled, imprisoned like Manning, or AWOL and fleeing imprisonment. I acted on my conscience only later, after leaving the Army, and more cautiously. As one of the few intelligence veterans bearing public witness to conscience, I feel it’s now my turn to speak out on behalf of truth and justice. To be honest, I’m scared. The prospect of absolute idleness and gradual emotional rot in prison terrifies me. But I cannot "stand idly by" (Leviticus 19:16) while my friends suffer for their acts of conscience.

St. Paul is perhaps the greatest of all ex-intelligence professionals. Having spent years as "Saul" hunting down and eliminating Christians, he was called by Christ, quite literally, to quit his violence. The most unlikely of apostles, Saul became the greatest proponent of Christ's peace. Beaten by scourges, bloodied and shackled, facing certain death, Paul gazed out at the world with compassion, secure in the knowledge and faith of the living God of justice.

Through the conversion of Saul, Christ sends us a clear and relevant message: It is precisely those soldiers with dark and heavy hearts, whose consciences have turned, who will lay down their weapons and take up the cross. Christ is also telling us that the real moral authorities are not political or military leaders but rather the formerly dejected and the radically transformed. Though nations wantonly continue to send their precious sons and daughters off to kill -- and then ignore, jail, and often destroy those sons and daughters who finally object to the violence -- Christ's peace also rises in the hearts of these weary ones.

To discover the peace of God inside us is within the power of all, believers or not. This is something that we can witness in the Bradley Mannings, the AWOL soldiers, the conscientious objectors, and the Sauls of the world -- those agents of mindless death who are put on the path to redemption by simple acts of conscience.

In my congregation we pray the Lenten prayer, like Peter at the Last Supper: "Humbly allow that we may follow [Christ] to the cross." But, also like Peter, it is a rare and bitterly noteworthy moment when we finally comprehend the enormity of this request.

In the meantime, I wonder, is it possible to stand with Christ the condemned, Christ the tortured, Christ the detainee, Christ the inmate, and Christ the traitor? The only answer I've found is to stand with all the accused, tortured, and detained. How else can we be worthy of our salvation?

Evan Knappenberger is a disabled Iraq war veteran, a student, and a community peace activist living in Bellingham, Washington.

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