Manning Invite Widened the Civilian-Military Divide at Harvard
In honoring former US Army Specialist Chelsea Manning by naming her a Visiting Fellow, the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School opened wide a wound that leaders at Harvard have diligently worked to close in recent years: the civilian-military divide.
There are few Rorschach Tests more revealing of the differences in perspectives among national security thinkers than the visage of Ms. Manning. The civilian academic perspective is best exemplified by the way her illegal leaking of classified information is taught as a case study in the Kennedy School’s own core curriculum. Evincing the academy’s general skepticism towards the secrecy of the U.S. national security establishment and its yearning to bathe Manning in the triumphant light of a heroic whistleblower, joyfully liberated, the school asks students like me to consider study questions that miss the point of her actions. Questions like, when is someone “morally justified” in leaking classified information? In what way do Manning’s actions meet the criteria for “civil disobedience”? And when should soldiers shirk the chain of command and stand-up to their superior officers?
During my four deployments as a military intelligence officer prior to attending Harvard Kennedy School, Ms. Manning’s actions raised questions of an entirely different nature. My analysts and I asked, how can governments execute statecraft or sensitive military operations if every defense analyst gets a veto on secrecy? How could some Americans support the leaking of hundreds of thousands of documents posing “serious damage” to American national security, when there was no way the leaker could have read them all in advance? And given that Wikileaks has proven itself to be a tool of the authoritarian Russian government (never more clearly than in undermining the 2016 US presidential election), how can any American who leaks to them honestly claim to be a patriot?
Some have argued that Ms. Manning’s service, treasonous as it was, equips her to be a prominent voice at Harvard for transgender servicemembers, but that is a slap in the face to the courageous and heroic sacrifices of every LGBT sailor I served with. At a time when those American heroes are under attack from a transphobic service ban by a draft-dodging commander-in-chief, LGBT service members deserve representation aligned with the honest and faithful service they perform for this country every day.
I applaud Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf for his willingness to listen to perspectives across the civilian-military divide on this topic, and his swift leadership in both rescinding the honorific title that came with Ms. Manning’s speaking invitation and taking personal responsibility for it. Try as some might to cast this reversal in the trite narratives of dark CIA influence – even though Manning remains welcome to meet with Kennedy School students – Dean Elmendorf’s action simply recognizes that not everyone with something to teach aspiring public servants does so with a personal example worth emulating.
As an American, Ms. Manning has a right to live her life as a proud transwoman. As someone who has served time for her crimes, she deserves her freedom too. But as someone who broke faith with her country including the many individual veterans of the Harvard Community, she does not deserve the platform, nor the honor in stature, of a Visiting Fellow at Harvard.
Nathan Bruschi (HBS ’18) is a George Leadership Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and joint degree student with Harvard Business School. He served in the United States Navy from 2010 to 2015. Follow him on Twitter @NathanBruschi.