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Breaking the Chain of Command

(Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Senior Chief Kevin Elliott / US Navy)

When is a whistleblower not a whistleblower? When he's a scapegoat. Pfc. Bradley Manning is an unfortunate – and challenging – case in point, and to understand why, we need to see his situation in context.

The military and large corporations – two institutions that play defining roles in our industrial civilization – tend to drape themselves in the legal fiction that a person can pass his or her responsibility off on others. In the military, the concept of “just following orders” is still invoked, though it was discredited by the Nuremberg trials. In traditional corporations with publicly traded exposure, not only are employees required to follow a similar chain of command, but shareholders invest capacity into the entity without being legally accountable for any misdeeds it carries out in the course of its activities. The equivalent of “Inc.” in German, “GmbH,” stands for “group with limited responsibility.” But we lose something of ourselves, something essentially human, when we give away responsibility for our own actions – or think we can. In our case, we now have a bizarre situation in which corporations are considered “legal persons” while actual persons are deprived of their humanity by an established fiction! The possibilities for abuse are endless.

The need for this legerdemain is inherent in the purposes of these two institutions. The military, tasked with carrying out society's “legitimate” violence, and the corporation, designed to generate material profits, need to pretend that they can reassign responsibility, since one cannot make oneself an instrument of violence and/or greed without committing misdeeds, whether or not they are recognized as such in law. I am not saying that this is all that corporations, or even, I suppose, the military, do, but they do enough of it to constitute dangers that we have to address, and the fiction of transferred responsibility prevents us from addressing them. If these two institutions cannot operate without this legal fiction and all the violence that fiction enables, we may have to find entirely different ways of doing business and defense.

To be sure, the need for this pretense says something positive about human nature. It is like the phenomenon that psychologist Rachel MacNair calls perpetration-induced traumatic stress, the phenomenon that is tormenting so many troops who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan only to commit suicide at home. As David Swanson recently wrote in “War is a Lie,” those “who survive war are far more likely now to have been trained and conditioned to do things they cannot live with having done.” But neither that remorse nor the legal fiction that they were not responsible for what they did can, by themselves, save the soldiers or the society they serve. We have to learn the lesson of that remorse and that need to dissemble. We have to realize that they are telling us to find alternatives to the abusive systems that caused them – alternatives like nonviolent defense, needs-based rather than consumption-oriented economies and so forth.

Scapegoating has been around for a long time. It was invented by nearly all cultures, which went to great lengths to convince themselves that scapegoating was legitimate and effective. It may seem absurd to us that the sins of a community could be loaded onto a goat and driven out into the wilderness, but the Israelites needed to believe it, and so they did. No doubt the idea that a close subordinate can be designated to “take the heat” or be “thrown under the bus” whenever a president is caught doing certain types of misdeeds (the particular types that matter can vary erratically – this is how Bill Clinton was hung for doing something that had been passed over in silence since the beginning of the republic) will be just as absurd to future, hopefully more enlightened, generations.

Rene Girard has devoted his career to exposing the dynamic of scapegoating: its dire presence in many cultural forms from antiquity onwards (or much earlier, if you look at some primate behaviors), the characteristic signs of the designated scapegoat (they turn out to be remarkably uniform across many cultures – incest or other sexual irregularities show up everywhere) and how, as civilization progresses, institutions like law and monotheistic belief systems were created as, among other things, attempts to replace the scapegoat response. He notes that in Jewish law, for example, if a person is accused by everyone in the community he must be set free. This counterintuitive prescription was introduced because “unanimous violence” is a telltale sign that what's going on is scapegoating, and it is better to let a few guilty ones go free than give rein to a system that destroys so many innocents – to so little good.

For scapegoating at best can defuse or deflect violence without resolving it. In itself, it can at best bring some conflicts to a stalemate while dangerously inflaming others. It can never bring peace. It is time to move on. If Girard's historical reconstruction and interpretation of Judeo-Christian experiences is correct, it has been time for two thousand years. The reason modern examples of scapegoating have been so violently destructive on such a huge scale (think of the Holocaust) is precisely that they belong to a bygone era and should have been outgrown long before. (The very term “holocaust” comes from the ancient Greek word for the kind of sacrifice in which the victim is completely consumed by fire – if you believe it, dedicated to the gods.)

One of Girard's more brilliant discoveries was that to maintain the fiction of its efficacy, the scapegoating system must conceal the inconvenient fact that the victim had nothing to do with the problem. Scapegoat literature never allows the victim to speak, unless it puts convenient confessions of guilt into their mouth, as in the case of Sophocles' Oedipus, who not only admits that he is guilty of incest but punishes and expels himself so that the community is spared the trouble – and the pollution that can accrue to sacrificers. You could not ask for a “better” victim. Job, on the other hand, introduces a new moral era. When he refuses, in the text we now have, to admit that he is guilty because he in fact isn't, he breaks the cycle, and God (the real one, capital “G”) responds entirely differently than the pagan consumer-gods who “accept” the sacrifice. We need hardly speak here of the words of Jesus: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

This is now the critical point: do we? Do we know what we are doing when we let military “justice” subject Manning to the inhumane punishment of solitary confinement – the equivalent of expulsion from the land of the living – for almost a year now, on the grounds of “prevention of injury” for which there is no psychiatric justification? Manning's attorney David E. Coombs, writing in The Washington Post on January 21, said, “The fact that they won't articulate any basis for it leaves you with no other conclusion than it must be punitive” … or that no articulate basis is needed when your thinking is not really legal, but mythic.

There is such a thing as moral progress. That is why the suicide rate among combatants has steadily increased with Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – because the moral awareness that war is a very wrong thing to do is increasing. As the social evangelist Kirby Page said in the simplest terms at the beginning of the last century, “War is a sin. It is the greatest social sin we are responsible for.” Our refusal to come to use that awareness becomes steadily more problematic, throwing us back onto progressively more outmoded forms of coping. War is becoming an outdated institution. So is scapegoating. The more outdated, the more destructive they become.

Some praise the likes of Manning and Julian Assange for their courage, while others hate and fear them. Both reactions are understandable. But if, as a society, we scapegoat them, we are only trying to shift our own burden of guilt onto their shoulders, and to think we can get away with that for very long is a dangerous delusion.

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