Will Bradley Manning Be Remembered as a Traitor or a Patriot?

His trial is over, but the verdict of history won't be clear for years to come.

Gary Cameron/Reuters

The mixed result of Pfc. Bradley Manning's trial -- convictions on most of the charges against him, an acquittal on the most serious charge of "aiding" the enemy -- will do little to change the way people view him today. To those at home and around the world who see him as a courageous whistle-blower, the fact that he will now likely spend many decades in prison will foster, not stymie, his burgeoning martyrdom. And to those at home and around the world who see him as a traitor, the fact that a military judge is poised to sentence him to the brig until he grows old is a comforting sign that there is still some order within the ranks. This is how it is when the trials of men are conducted long after a people have reached their own verdict.

And this is how it is when both the government and a defendant go to trial seeking to turn a legal proceeding into political symbolism. The Obama Administration and military prosecutors pushed for this trial, even after Manning's earlier guilty pleas to lesser charges, because they wanted to send a strong message to the world, and to Manning's former fellow soldiers, that an army simply cannot leak its secrets. And Manning sought to use the trial and its publicity to send the message that there is still a place in criminal law, and in the war on terror, for the conscientious objector. Col. Denise Lind's decision today gives Manning a "victory" in this war within a war. But he's still a convicted felon facing decades in prison.

To the bitter end, then, the Manning case and trial, like so many other high-profile legal disputes this year, hasn't divided America so much as it has revealed the scope of the divide -- on our ill-defined and lingering war on terror, on our broader foreign policy choices, on the use and misuse of new technologies, on the nature of investigative journalism, and on the pervasive and growing secrecy with which our government operates. For every reporter, civil libertarian and human rights lawyer who praises Manning's bravery there is someone else who harbors seething resentment at the gall he displayed in deciding, for himself, which secrets he would keep and which he wouldn't. We have achieved a stalemate on Manning -- we agree to disagree -- and today's verdict, giving a little bit to everyone, doesn't change that one bit.

But the truth is that the most significant open questions about Bradley Manning won't be answered -- indeed can't be answered -- for decades. How will our sons and daughters view him? What will future historians say about his crimes and his motives when they look at his story with the benefit of hindsight -- and all of the information about him and his disclosures that will be declassified in the next 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 years (or sooner, if there are more Edward Snowdens)? Will America half a century from now come to a consensus about this young man it is so clearly riven about today? Will our grandchildren know him as a hero or as a patriot? Or will they even know him at all?

Even though Manning will remain static for decades to come -- he's not going anywhere anytime soon -- the consequences of his crimes, the ways in which the classified information he disclosed to the world alters the coming history of the planet, will remain fluid and dynamic for generations to come. He's started something and no one today can possibly know how it will end. His disclosures, like the subsequent disclosures by Edward Snowden, are less like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill and more like the seed sown into the wind. One consequence will generate another consequence that will generate another and another. We've seen that happen already. We will see much more to come.

Depending upon how those consequences ultimately play out, Manning will look better with time, the way Pentagon-Paper leaker Daniel Ellsberg has looked better with time. Or he will look worse with time, the way Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have looked worse with time. But he surely won't look the same when journalists and lawyers and historians are writing about him in 2063. Surely some law of mathematics or physics guarantees this. And if they do not surely the law of human nature does. The Pentagon may have judged Bradley Manning. Congress and Glenn Greenwald may have as well. This military judge may have now done so. But history has not.

In this sense Manning is unlike almost every other criminal sentenced to life in prison. A murder victim never comes back from the dead, never evolves, never has the opportunity to testify in a way that justifies or condemns what the killer has done. But the information Manning disclosed, and the government about which he disclosed it, surely are not dead. Nor are the policies and practices Manning sought to expose. Nor are the questions journalists and lawyers now must confront as they continue to seek to report on controversial matters that go to the core of government functions.

All of these issues, all of these conflicts, all of these uncertainties, interacting with each other in ways we have only just begun to comprehend, are themselves a continuing testament to Manning's conduct -- to the choice he made when he broke the law for a cause he considered just. They are all witnesses to and proof of his intentions. And their evolution over time, their ebb and their flow, their call and response, will continue to swirl around the nation even as Manning sits alone in a cell, day after day after day, until the young man grows old and the world changes yet again. His public story is nearly over. His history is not yet written.