Are Manning and Snowden patriots? That depends on what we do next.

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Yet for the rest of us, the question presumes a prior one: To whom do Army privates and intelligence contractors owe their loyalty? To state or to country? To the national security apparatus that employs them or to the people that apparatus is said to protect?

Those who speak for that apparatus, preeminently the president, assert that the interests of the state and the interests of the country are indistinguishable. Agencies charged with keeping Americans safe are focused on doing just that. Those who leak sensitive information undermine that effort and therefore deserve to feel the full force of law.

But what if the interests of the state do not automatically align with those of the country? In that event, protecting “the homeland” serves as something of a smokescreen. Behind it, the state pursues its own agenda. In doing so, it stealthily but inexorably accumulates power, privilege and prerogatives.

Wars — either actual hostilities or crises fostering the perception of imminent danger — facilitate this process. War exalts, elevates and sanctifies the state. Writing almost a century ago, journalist Randolph Bourne put the matter succinctly: “War is the health of the state.” Among citizens, war induces herd-like subservience. “A people at war,” Bourne wrote, “become in the most literal sense obedient, respectful, trustful children again, full of that naive faith in the all-wisdom and all-power of the adult who takes care of them.”

Bourne’s observation captures an essential theme of recent U.S. history. Before the Good War gave way to the Cold War and then to the open-ended Global War on Terror, the nation’s capital was a third-rate Southern city charged with printing currency and issuing Social Security checks. Several decades of war and quasi-war transformed it into today’s center of the universe. Washington demanded deference, and Americans fell into the habit of offering it. In matters of national security, they became if not obedient, at least compliant, taking cues from authorities who operated behind a wall of secrecy and claimed expertise in anticipating and deflecting threats.

Popular deference allowed those authorities to get away with murder, real and metaphorical. Benefits accruing to the country proved mixed at best, and the expertise claimed by those inside the Beltway did not automatically translate into competence. If doubts on that score persisted, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the mismanaged wars that followed ought to have demolished them.

Yet in Washington such setbacks, however costly or catastrophic, make little impression. The national security state has a formidable capacity to absorb, forget and carry on as if nothing untoward had transpired. The already forgotten Iraq war provides only the latest example.

Critics and outsiders are not privy to the state’s superior knowledge; they are incapable of evaluating alleged threats. Here is the mechanism that confers status on insiders: the control of secrets. Their ownership of secrets puts them in the know. It also insulates them from accountability and renders them impervious to criticism.

In such a mechanism, Bourne observed, “dissent is like sand in the bearings.” The metaphor is singularly apt. In the realm of national security, dissent matters only when it penetrates the machine’s interior. Only then does the state deem it worthy of notice.

To understand this is to appreciate the importance of what Manning and Snowden have done and why their actions have produced panic in Washington. Here is irrefutable evidence of dissent penetrating the machine’s deepest recesses. Thanks to a couple of tech-savvy malcontents, anyone with access to the Internet now knows what only insiders were supposed to know.

By taking technology that the state employs to manufacture secrets and using it to make state secrecy impossible, they put the machine itself at risk. Forget al-Qaeda. Forget Iran’s nuclear program. Forget the rise of China. Manning and Snowden confront Washington with something far more worrisome. They threaten the power the state had carefully accrued amid recurring wars and the incessant preparation for war. In effect, they place in jeopardy the state’s very authority — while inviting the American people to consider the possibility that less militaristic and more democratic approaches to national security might exist.

In the eyes of the state, Manning and Snowden — and others who may carry on their work — can never be other than traitors. Whether the country eventually views them as patriots depends on what Americans do with the opportunity these two men have handed us.

Read more essays by Bacevich in Outlook:

I lost my son to a war I oppose. We were both doing our duty.

Endless war, a recipe for four-star arrogance

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