Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Aid and Comfort

with 8 comments

So, Bradley Manning has been convicted of just about everything except “aiding the enemy,” as CNN put it, and I’ve been thinking about treason.

“Giving aid and comfort to the enemy in the time of war” is the way the US law has always defined treason, even though the actual reading of the article in the Constitution doesn’t add the “in time of war.”

Still,  levying war against the United States is supposed to be the standard, and the standard has always been very narrowly construed.

I remember being taught, in grade school, that the reason for this was that the British government used very expansive definitions of treason in order to imprison people it didn’t like.  Our definition of treason was therefore very narrow, and very difficult to prove.

I don’t remember giving the issue any more thought than that.  I somehow managed to miss the whole Jane-Fonda-in-the-Vietcong-Tank thing, but when I did hear about it, I remember thinking that “a very  narrow definition” might be understating the case.

Maybe it was because the war was formerly undeclared.  Or maybe it was because the war was so unpopular. Fonda was not only not tried, she wasn’t even arrested.

As far as the Manning case goes, it did occur to me that if we weren’t going to charge Fonda with treason, we probably shouldn’t be charging Manning with it–but then, things have changed, as everybody says all the time.

The people who wrote the Constitution thought of treason as a fairly clear cut act, and giving “aid and comfort” as something like passing secrets directly to the opposing army’s generals. 

There was no Internet is 1789.  There were no phones, either.  The extent to which revealing state secrets in a public forum could immediately and significantly affect the course of a war was minimal.

Then I thought of something else–

If “treason”  meant anything to the founders, certainly joining the enemy’s army in time of war would count.

And yet although our war in Afghanistan was a declared war, and John Walker Lindh  was definitely fighting with the enemy army.

But we didn’t charge Lindh with treason, and eventually let him plead down to charges that carried only 20 years of jail time.

And we did that even though the war, at the time, was not unpopular.

Looking back over the last 50 years, it’s almost as if we’ve lost our belief in treason the way some people lose their belief in God.

It’s just  not there any more.  We’re not sure if it ever was there.

I had a fair amount of amusement reading various foreign press organs–and especially the BBC–while they wandered around cluelessly unable to understand that the big news wasn’t that Manning  had been convicted of all those lesser charges, but that he hadn’t been convicted of the big one.

It took the BBC a full 24 hour news cycle to finally get the oint, which has to be some kind of record, even for them.

But I’ve been wondering what’s been going on here.

It could be that we’ve lost any sense of ourselves as a nation state, and therefore as a people with a specific, focussed, and necessarily exclusionary identity.

It could be that we’ve  used the charge so seldom, and not at all since WWII, that it just sounds strange to us now–like hog fat poulstices and dunking stools, it reeks of the past.

John Walker Lindh’s father wrote an extraordinary article for the British newspaper The Guardian. You can find it here


It’s an extraordinary document, even allowing for the strain the man had to be under given what amounted to the loss of his son.

It’s not just that there’s no sense that people anywhere, ever,  might owe allegiance to anything on the basis of anything but our own personal beliefs.

It is also thoroughly and radically relativized in a way that would have been inconceivable before 1960, and even for many  years after, at least  in the United States.

The Taliban were our allies.

He didn’t mean to fight other Americans.

It was misplaced idealism.

It was his duty under his religion.

Lots of other Americans joined armies in Muslim countries, too.

In Frank Lindh’s world, it doesn’t matter what you do, only the intentions you had when doing  it–and maybe not even those.

Reading through this thing, I don’t find it odd that John Walker Lindh ended up as an American Taliban.  I think that Frank Lindh ought to count himself lucky that that’s all his son ended up as.

But the moral vacuity of Frank Lindh’s life doesn’t explain what the behavior of the rest of us. 

Frank Lindh was wrong to believe that “throughout the West”  his sons actions were recognized as “misplaced idealism,” but the fact is that we weren’t recognizing them as much of anything else, either.

The charges were wishy-washy even before the plea deal, and for all the orchestrated  outrage of Fox News and its affiliates, the country seemed to be less concerned w ith condemning the acts than they were with why such a nice kid from an upper middle class family would have gotten himself into this  mess.

Even writers at the Hoover Institution, usually reliably conservative or libertarian  in all things, objected to prosecuting Lindh for pretty much anything.

So  here we sit, with Bradley Manning almost certainly going to jail, although not, of course, for treason.  We’ll nail down Edward Snowden one of these days–when the Russians  have stopped playing w ith him–and he’ll go to jail, too, but also not for treason.

Jane Fonda still wanders around confused as to why anybody would be mad at  her for that day in North Vietnam.  A few protestors still show up whenever she films on location, carrying the usual signs saying “I’m not Fonda Hanoi Jane.”

It’s only a few, though.

I think we’ve come to a place where we think that treason is mythical–like unicorns and Hogwarts.

And if it’s not mythical,  it’s not exactly a real crime, like rape, or murder, or smoking in  your classroom.

Written by janeh

July 31st, 2013 at 10:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Aid and Comfort'

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  1. If the central purpose of life is to be true to yourself, to be all you can etc etc., any allegiance or duty to any other person or entity must come second, if not further down your list of priorities. It doesn’t matter if it’s your duty to your family, your marriage, your employer, your city, province or country.


    31 Jul 13 at 12:01 pm

  2. Of course, at the very core, it’s another example – and probably one of the best – of the galloping infantilism that we were talking about the other day.

    Because giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time or war was the whole point of Fonda’s and Ramsay Clark’s sojourns in North Vietnam, they were traitors and should have been charged and tried accordingly. However, the government probably didn’t do so because, in the context of the times, finding a jury willing to convict on the evidence would have been very difficult if not impossible, and the whole exercise would have been politically counterproductive.

    But in my view you can’t separate, as Manning’s Court Martial has done, the act of spying from “giving aid and comfort” when the act is done by a citizen. When American and allied troops are dying in military action directed by their own government against a designated enemy, it’s “time of war” by any sane definition, at least from a national perspective, whatever international public opinion might be on the issue.

    Assange, for example, as a non-citizen, could not be convicted of treason but Snowden could be, because there is no doubt that what he and Manning, both US citizens, have done is to give aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war.

    If a good long sentence for Manning helps to wake naive and sentimental fools up to the fact that you can’t do what he did without endangering innocent people’s lives and by giving aid and comfort to real and potential enemies in peace as well as war, let’s hope they throw away the key.


    31 Jul 13 at 12:36 pm

  3. Not sure about how “we” are getting hazy about treason, though I’d grant the point among the United States’ “opinion makers”–high-status universities and mainstream media.
    But Lindh and Manning both had problems as treason cases. Manning had evidently redacted the names of informants, which I thought made him a better candidate for espionage than “aid and comfort to the enemy.” And Lindh was arguably in the Taliban before 9-11. As I recall we couldn’t prove he’d actually fired on US troops. It’s a tricky bit, and always has been. The French Foreign Legion fought both the British and the Germans in WWII, but neither the British nor the Nazis tried to round up and prosecute their nationals who had joined pre-war. (For contrast, there was small Waffen-SS detachment recruited from British POWs. THEY were looking at prison–if they weren’t executed–as were the Americans the Abwehr landed on Long Island.)
    The US definition of treason is highly restrictive, deliberately and rightly so–but grade school to the contrary, I believe you’ll find it IS British, dating somewhere between Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. based on earlier experiences with more expansive royal definitions. We didn’t work out everything from first principles in Philadelphia.


    31 Jul 13 at 12:45 pm

  4. I was going to comment on Manning but this says everything I wanted to say.


    Jane asks if we have lost the concept of treason. I think it may be more than that. We seem to have lost the concept of law and being responsible for our actions.

    Consider the Civil Rights protests of the 50s and 60s. The protesters deliberately broke laws and went to jail to demonstrate that the laws were bad and force the courts to test the laws against the Constitution.

    Consider the draft evaders of the Vietnam war. Publicly burning draft cards and refusing to register. And then running like hell for the Canadian border to escape the consequences of their actions.

    Next consider the Pentagon Papers. The President is elected and answers to Congress. Congress is elected and the members have to face the public every 2 or 6 years. The heads of the CIA, FBI, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff are appointed by the President and approved by the Senate. They all have to answer to House and Senate committees.

    The editors and reporters of the NY Times are not elected and not answerable to the public yet they believed they were entitled to decide what nation security required and then did everything in their power to avoid court action.

    The NY Times had an editorial on Manning.


    The readers comments mostly ignore Manning and complain about government security policies and the war. The general attitude seems to be “I don’t like what the government is doing therefore Manning was free to break the law.”

    Do we still believe in a rule of law?


    31 Jul 13 at 6:07 pm

  5. jd, if by “we” you mean the overall government, the media and our high-prestige schools, no, of course not, and I have my doubts about the overall civilian population.

    But there is still the defense community and the intelligence community, and they understand quite well that when you’re sworn in, you give up the right to pick and choose your own wars, and that when you agree to accept classified information you give up the right to hand it out to whoever you like. To give everyone from the President to the grunt on patrol the best possible intelligence, the members of the intelligence community have to share information fully and freely with one another–which means they have to trust one another, and Manning and Snowden betrayed that trust. No prison term is long enough for that.


    31 Jul 13 at 7:53 pm

  6. Robert, I quite agree with you about betrayal of trust. As for the general public, I think they no longer understand what a war is like. Australia has 27,000 men killed in action in WW2. That comes to about 5000 a year. We have had 30 killed in 10 years in Afghanistan and the media treat each death as a major national disaster.


    31 Jul 13 at 8:15 pm

  7. Most people don’t think war is justified any more, perhaps because the media reports bring some of the suffering right into the living room.

    On the other hand, some of the same people want their governments to intervene in really nasty and violently unstable (or, sometimes, stable but very oppressive) places far away without actually, you know, sending in soldiers or shooting people. Even in failed states with multiple armed factions shooting everyone in sight.

    There’s something weird about people who can hold two completely contradictory convictions in their minds at the same time – we must send in soldiers to stop the killing in X + we must not send the soldiers in (or allow them to shoot anyone) and must also stop the killing in X. Logically, of course, they could engage in radical non-violence in the face of such situations, but very few of them ever seem to do that. They just want their governments to bring peace and democracy to the most unlikely-to-be-pacified war zones, but without actually killing anyone. Never mind that at least one faction is sure to be taking potshots at you because they think, rightly or wrongly, that you are supporting one of the others, and no legal system really exists any more to deal with these shootings.

    Canada’s had quite a bit of experience with peacekeeping, and it doesn’t work well unless someone or some group actually establishes some peace first that can be kept. Wailing about the evils of war doesn’t solve anything, once a situation has degenerated to the point at which the rival groups have turned to guns and bombs.


    31 Jul 13 at 9:01 pm

  8. I couldn’t agree more, Cheryl.

    We have had some bizarre situations down here where the media and “human rights” groups have tried to pursue soldiers for killing “civilians” when they have acted in immediate close quarters response to heavy and accurate gunfire from village houses as they passed by on patrol of areas that they were officially trying to protect. Soldiers have been court martialled for defending themselves. The court martial acquitted them of any wrong doing, but, as with Zimmermann, the only reason they were charged and tried was in reaction to ignorant media and utterly partisan/biassed political opinion.

    As Canada has no doubt discovered to its cost, peace-keeping and war fighting are pretty much mutually exclusive skill sets. Without the US “umbrella”, I doubt Canada could afford the luxury of a military force optimised to peace-keeping. A war-fighting force can double as peace-keepers to some extent, but the reverse is not so easy.


    1 Aug 13 at 1:15 am

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