(reposted with permission, from The South African Civil Society Information Service)
Just before midnight on the 5th of September 1877 an American soldier ran his bayonet into Thasunke Witko’s back in Fort Robinson, Nebraska. In June the previous year Thasunke Witko, known as Crazy Horse in English, had led his people to victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn against the US Seventh Cavalry under George Custer. The battle was won when Thasunke Witko charged directly into Custer’s lines, split his forces and brought the battle into the close combat better suited to the Sioux soldiers.
The Sioux had been at war for a century. But the seeds of this particular battle were sown in 1874 when Custer was first sent into the Black Hills, the last redoubt of the Sioux. When word spread that his expedition had discovered gold settlers, many of them, like many of Custer’s soldiers, half-starved refugees from the enclosure of the commons in Europe, rushed on to the Sioux lands. An invasion followed. And, as with Isandlwana three years later, an early battle was won and a war was lost.
The logic of the modern world wasn’t only inscribed in blood and fire. There was a philosophy to go with the practice of expropriation. In the same year that Custer first rode into the Black Kills John Stuart Mill, the English liberal philosopher, wrote that, “Barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one.” Mill’s casual evisceration of the humanity of most of the people in the world was not some idiosyncratic deviation from the liberal tradition. Back in 1690 John Locke, the first great liberal philosopher had written that while in England no one could enclose land “without the consent of all his fellow-commoners” it was right and proper to seize the “wild woods and uncultivated waste of America”.
Liberalism has never been for everyone. Its underside – invasion, enslavement, murder and appropriation, a long accumulation of global terror – has always been premised on the division of the world into different types of people: Christian and heathen, civilized and barbarian, white and black, developed and undeveloped and, these days, Western and Muslim.
On the 12 July 2007 the crew of an Apache helicopter, with the call sign Crazy Horse 18, killed eleven unarmed people and seriously wounded two children in a Baghdad suburb. A military spokesperson informed the New York Times that: “There is no question that coalition forces were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force.” He was lying. And in a world where a single humanity remains divided into different types accorded different value his lie carried weight. His lie was no aberration. A war for oil was presented as an act of solidarity in selfless search of democracy, human rights and, implicitly, armed conscription into the virtues of Western civilization.
We know what really happened in Baghdad on the 12th of July 2007 because a young American soldier decided to leak the video filmed through the gun sight of the Apache helicopter, Crazy Horse 18. In February 2010 Bradley Manning, a twenty two year old intelligence analyst working in base outside Baghdad, leaked the video. It was put online in April that year and a month later Manning was arrested. Over time a huge cache of documents and other information that Manning had downloaded was steadily made available.
Manning was first held in Kuwait and then moved to a military prison in Virginia. At times he’s been held in solitary confinement in an 8ft by 6ft cell, shackled in the presence of visitors, made to parade his nakedness publicly and deprived of sleep. It’s difficult not to conclude that there has, consciously or not, been an attempt to drive him mad in order that he can be made to appear perverse rather than principled. But, now, after more than a thousand days and nights in military prison, he’s in the dock. Amongst other charges he stands accused of aiding the enemy.
There is, at the moment, no evidence that any of the information that Manning put into the public domain has aided any armed threat to any society. But what we do know is that the information that he put into the public domain has illuminated the sadistic underside of the American military, the active support of the US state for the dictators, venal and ruthless in equal measure, deposed in the Arab Spring and much more. Once again the liberal ideology stands exposed for what it has always been – a ruthless drive for profit legitimated by racism.
Sometimes courage does, like Thasunke Witko, charge in on a horse with lightning bolts painted on its sides. But mostly it’s confused, sick with fear and far from certain of itself. Mostly it’s just someone that can’t carry on without what Manning calls in his statement to his court martial the relief of attaining a clearer conscience.
This time courage has come to us in the form of Bradley Manning – a slight man reeling under the weight of a gender that doesn’t seem to fit, a man who grew up with distant, divorced parents, a man who went into the American military from living in his car and working at Starbucks hoping, like so many others, that it would open a path to college – a man who has felt himself on the edge of both disintegration and self-realization.
In The Strongest of the Strange, Charles Bukowski wrote,
you won’t see them often
for wherever the crowd is
but from them
For Bukowski the creative courage of the artist,
is a luminous presence, hard won.
Political courage is not the same thing as macho posturing or recourse to dogmatic abstractions. It requires acts of real consequence, heretical acts that refuse, in practice, the denial of our common humanity. It often leaves the people who find themselves lit by its flame broken. But political courage, with or without artistry, is also a luminous presence in the world.