We Steal Secrets rightly restores Bradley Manning to the centre of the WikiLeaks story

Alex Gibney's WikiLeaks documentary rightly celebrates Bradley Manning, while at the same time providing plenty of ammo for Julian Assange's many critics.

We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks (15)
dir: Alex Gibney

Until a few years ago, the description of a public figure as a “crazy, white-haired Aussie dude” would likely have called to mind Sir Les Patterson, the sozzled Australian cultural attaché created by Barry Humphries. In We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks, the silver-maned nut job we are presented with is Julian Assange. Whether his personal conduct towards women gives him something else in common with Sir Les is one of several questions that Alex Gibney can only raise without any hope of answering conclusively.

It’s regrettable that Assange didn’t consent to an interview – or, at least, to one that wasn’t accompanied by a $1m price tag. On the whole, Gibney (who directed Enron and Taxi to the Dark Side, about the murder of an Afghan cab driver by US soldiers) has made the best of what he’s got. Most importantly, the picture restores to the centre of the narrative Private Bradley Manning, a genuine hero not at liberty to take advantage of the hospitality of the Ecuadorian embassy.

Gibney traces Assange’s subversiveness back to his involvement in the Wank Worm, which sounds like a subject for a post-watershed edition of Gardeners’ Question Time but is actually a virus (“Worms Against Nuclear Killers”) used by Australian hackers to destabilise Nasa computer systems in the late 1980s. For the film’s first hour, Assange is presented as quite the folk hero. He set up WikiLeaks as a confidential drop box for secrets requiring urgent disclosure; an early success for the site was its revelation about suspicious practices at Icelandic banks, which prompted riots by a people not renowned for their fury, Björk aside.

Entering the story stage left, burdened with secrets personal and governmental, is Manning, a guilt-ridden innocent who resembles a smudge of Angel Delight with acne. Among the classified videos he passes anonymously to WikiLeaks is one of a US air strike on Baghdad by whooping, adrenalised soldiers who appear to be under the impression that they’re playing Call of Duty. Eleven people died in that sustained attack, including a father driving his children to school and two members of Reuters staff whose cameras were mistaken for weapons.

While the reach of Assange and WikiLeaks is represented in the film by images of lines latticing the globe, Manning’s words are rendered entirely in a lonely ticker tape of computer type, the cursor blinking plaintively at the end of each line. (His username, bradass87, is touchingly aspirational in the special way that only usernames can be.) Asked by Adrian Lamo, the hacker to whom he reaches out and who ends up shopping him to the authorities, why he has turned whistle-blower, Manning types: “I . . . care?”

We Steal Secrets is correct to celebrate Manning. But it’s obvious from the roll call of interviewees, which includes a number of people who believe they’ve been wronged by Assange (such as his former partner-in-espionage Daniel Domscheit-Berg), that any bias will not be favourable to the WikiLeaks founder. Admittedly, he doesn’t help matters. From colossal errors (refusing to confront fully the allegations that he sexually assaulted two women) to trifling ones (there’s some unflattering footage of him bullishly contradicting Domscheit-Berg in public or disingenuously expressing a discomfort with being photographed), he has supplied much of the ammo for his character assassins.

What the film doesn’t convey is the possibility that only someone of Assange’s personality type could have engineered something as revolutionary as WikiLeaks (even if his approach to life-saving redactions in classified documents could be cavalier). Just as Assange’s misjudgements threaten to sully the good name of WikiLeaks, so it only takes a few indulgent flourishes by Gibney to shake our faith in his methods. A superfluous interlude reconstructing a night in the life of James Ball, a former WikiLeaks employee, suggests that Gibney harbours ambitions to make moody pop promos for Radiohead. And it can only weaken the movie’s charges against Assange to play in slow motion footage of him boogieing appallingly at a party. Impugn his integrity by all means. Savage his character. But don’t show the world his white man’s overbite and his dad-like dance moves.

Mystery man: Julian Assange emerges onto the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times