Perhaps one way to understand Manning is as a saint: someone who pursued a moral vision without regard to consequences. Yes, he committed crimes. Under the law, his conviction was reasonable. But in the end, I believe Manning's revelations made important differences and these were of enormous value to the United States, humanity, and justice.
Is Manning a saint? It is not usually possible to know in the saint's lifetime with any reliability. Recall, if you like, the great black leader Martin Luther King, Jr., who is now widely recognized as a liberator and claimed by some conservatives as one of their own. It was not so in his life! Conservatives reviled him and many white centrists objected to his activism. The FBI monitored King from 1963 to the end of his life, even sending him a tape full of blackmail material and a letter encouraging him to suicide. Ultimately, he was assassinated by a white supremacist. King was willing to sacrifice everything for his moral goals and he broke the power of the white supremacists in the southern states. This is widely acknowledged as moral act. He did not care about the consequences, even to himself.
Is Manning a saint? He is like one in his disregard of consequences to himself, certainly. He has been tortured; sleep-deprived in solitary confinement for nine months. He is likely to be imprisoned for decades, and I doubt he will be well treated. What about consequences to other people? There do not appear to have been many. The national security state rolls on. In time, perhaps, some people will lose their jobs. Wikileaks has been conscientious in redacting names, still, some assets may be put at risk, but then were already at risk.
In my view, if the law were just, Bush II, Cheney, Obama, their Secretaries of State and Defense, and other high US government officials would all be on trial on the Hague for crimes against humanity. Against that, does one life count? Bradley Manning thought his own life was the lesser price than the need to tell the world what he had learned.
I once commented that in Aaron Swartz, the campaign for the internet as a tool of justice had its first martyr. In Manning, I believe, the internet has come near to having its second, and perhaps Edward Snowden will be the third.
Does this matter? Will the acts of Swartz, Manning, and Snowden change the world? Perhaps. If the world's moral sense is stirred by their acts, which is how martyrdom gains its power, it will matter. Martyrdom is a sign that people are willing to give, literally, everything for some purpose. Now, this in itself proves nothing: people will give their lives for causes, and these causes may be "good" or "bad." But if power is wrong, and the martyrs right, there comes a point where the powerful get sick of killing saints to silence them, where revulsion against the killing stays their hands. And so they make changes.
Are we in such dire moral straits? I think so. Our rulers and leaders have put the entire future of humanity is at risk, both through wars with new and terrifying weapons and through environmental destruction. Laws of property and person that have stood for centuries are being abrogated. Mass killings of innocents have become routine. New tools of oppression are being developed, and called tools of freedom and peace. In the language of the oppressors of the world, Orwell's cautionary vision has been realized: war is peace and freedom is slavery, and we can hear that lies are truth every day and night on the news. Vast evil is lose in the world, and so saints have arisen to speak to us of it, if we have the ears to hear.