A History of Injustice: The Story of Bradley Manning

Since today is the day when the verdict in the case of Bradley Manning will be decided, I’m reposting an article I wrote in January of last year for In Our Words about Private Manning. You can find the original post here.

UPDATE: Private Manning has been convicted on 20 charges, not including aiding the enemy. For more, follow Kevin Gosztola and Alexa O’Brien on Twitter.

The case of Bradley Manning is the story of one of the greatest travesties of justice that has occurred in not just recent history, but arguably in the entire short history of the United States of America. A bold statement, I grant you, but one, I think, that bears out upon examination.

My posts for In Our Words tend to be, well, a bit flippant in nature, because of late I have been writing mostly about the Republican presidential nomination process, a spectacle that can, in my opinion, only really be covered with a degree of irreverence and incredulity. Today, I will not be my usual sarcastic self. Nothing about this story is laughable. This story does not have slapstick social conservatives flouting scientific fact or engaging in absurd casual racism. This story entails the worst of the worst that the United States of America stands for in the modern world. Most of you reading this, I think, know that it has been a very long time since this country’s government stood for liberty and justice for all, if in fact it ever did. By the time this piece is over, I intend, whether you have heard the specifics of this case or not, to feel violently ill. I intend to tear asunder any pretension of honorable conduct that our military brass, our elected officials, and the President himself have left. I want you to leave this piece behind so enraged that even the most pragmatic part of yourself cannot be reconciled to vote for President Obama or any Democrat who supports the kind of inhuman conduct that our government is currently perpetrating. I do not say this because of any arrogance on my behalf in regards to my writing ability; I believe simply that the facts of Private Bradley Manning’s ordeal are so sickening that there is no other logical conclusion that complete and total revulsion at our elected officials.

So who is this person who I am talking about? They were born Bradley Manning in 1987 in rural Oklahoma, to a Welsh mother and American father. Their fractious marriage led to Manning moving around a lot as a kid, from Oklahoma to Haverfordwest, Wales, and back again to Oklahoma. Being small and nerdy, along with which comes all of the mockery and ostracization with which many of us are probably familiar, Manning was often left to fend for themselves, which left them without much of a support group on which to fall back upon. The word from their hometown is that “[they were] too smart for [their] own good;” they always performed well at the science fair, played the saxophone, and traveled across the state as a member of the quiz team. Most notably, it seems, is their willingness to speak out on behalf of their own opinions:

“You would say something, and [they] would have an opinion, which was a little unusual for a middle school kid,” said Rick McCombs, currently the school principal, who was a high school history teacher and coach when Brad was in school. “Don’t get me wrong, we had the cut-ups and the clowns and the mean ones and the bullies and those kinds of things, but this young [person] actually kind of thought on [their] own.”

This ability to engage with their peers came abruptly to an end when Brian Manning left his wife. They became withdrawn, spending lots of time alone in front of a computer, in the days when the Internet was first emerging. They also began to question their sexual orientation, and as we all know, middle and high school are not good places for one to start announcing their differences. Denver Nicks relates something Manning did shortly before they and their mother left for Wales:

Amidst the disintegration of his family, pubescent Brad was coming to terms with his own sexuality. Shanée Watson recalls Brad gathering she and Jordan Davis near a tree at Jordan’s grandmother’s house to give them important news. Brad told them that he would very shortly be moving with his mom to Wales for high school. He also told his two best friends he was gay.

This moment warrants pause. Bradley Manning, still effectively a boy, had few friends, and his family had all but fallen apart. In a time before Facebook and sustained long-distance friendships, he was leaving his two best friends for what could easily have been the last time (for Shanée Watson, it was). He didn’t need to tell them he was gay in order to confess a hidden affection, to explain a behavior or even to allow his friends to know him better–in a short time he would be gone. And yet, presumably for no other reason than that he was who he was and wanted to live honestly in his own skin, he felt compelled, in a conservative, religious town, to confide in his friends that he was a homosexual. Not only must it have taken tremendous courage for such a young man, it displays a crucial aspect of Brad’s personality. As his Facebook profile still says today, “Take me for who I am, or face the consequences!”

Life did not get much better for them when they entered Tasker Milward School in Haverfordwest.

Former students at his school there, Tasker Milward, remembered Private Manning being teased for all sort of reasons. His American accent. His love of Dr Pepper. The amount of time he spent huddled before a computer.

“It was probably the worst experience anybody could go through,” said Rowan John, a former classmate who was openly gay in high school. “Being different like me, or Bradley, in the middle of nowhere is like going back in time to the Dark Ages.” And then, students began to suspect he was gay.

Sometimes, former classmates said, he reacted to the teasing by idly boasting about stealing other students’ girlfriends. At other times, he openly flirted with boys. Often, with only the slightest provocation, he would launch into fits of rage.

Meanwhile, their mother, Susan, had fallen deep into alcoholism and was barely functional. Manning was sent to live with his father, but it wasn’t long before they were thrown out, whether over their homosexuality or a fight with their stepmother is unclear. In any case they ended up with nowhere to sleep but the truck their father had given them, and they started wandering, from Tulsa to Chicago to Washington, D.C., and points in between. After finding some stability in the latter with his aunt, he eventually enlisted in the Army in October 2007, to get money for college, but more importantly, because he thought it was a good thing to do:

“I think he thought it would be incredibly interesting, and exciting,” Jordan Davis told me in an email. “He was proud of our successes as a country. He valued our freedom, but probably our economic freedom the most. I think he saw the US as a force for good in the world.”

But it wasn’t what Manning expected.

Bradley entered the Army with a plan. He was going to use the system and not vice versa. The Army would pay for college. He’d “get credentials so creepy conservatives can’t attack me.” But the Army had its own agenda. Bradley believed in the mission, but the Army seemed creepy to him, like a brainwashing cult intent on breaking him down, “correcting every eyetwitch,” he wrote. To begin, it set out to suppress his digital self. “the army took me, a web dev, threw me into a rigid schedule, removed me from my digital self,” he wrote to ZJ. “The army … threw me in the forests of Missouri for 10 weeks with an old M-16 Reagan-era load-­bearing equipment, and 50 twanging people hailing from places like Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi … joy,” he told ZJ, and later added, “what the hell did I put myself through?”

They managed to escape Army life for a while, and in Boston fell in with a group of hackers, where for the first time in a long time they managed to feel accepted. Manning met a person named Tyler, a musician and drag queen, and they had a brief but intense relationship, their first serious one with seemingly anyone; their breakup was yet another in a long line of abandonments for Manning.

At the same time, their Army career was not exactly stellar. He had arguments with superior officers and suffered frequent mood swings and outbursts, and thus was sent to a counselor. Despite that physician’s recommendation, he was sent to Iraq, and whatever optimism he had left about his mission was eradicated.

He soon found himself helping the Iraqi authorities detain civilians for distributing “anti-Iraqi literature”—which turned out to be an investigative report into financial corruption in their own government titled “Where does the money go?” The penalty for this “crime” in Iraq was not a slap on the wrist. Imprisonment and torture, as well as systematic abuse of prisoners, are widespread in the new Iraq. From the military’s own Sigacts (Significant Actions) reports, we have a multitude of credible accounts of Iraqi police and soldiers shooting prisoners, beating them to death, pulling out fingernails or teeth, cutting off fingers, burning with acid, torturing with electric shocks or the use of suffocation and various kinds of sexual abuse including sodomization with gun barrels and forcing prisoners to perform sexual acts on guards and each other.

Manning had more than adequate reason to be concerned about handing over Iraqi citizens for likely torture simply for producing pamphlets about corruption in a government notorious for its corruptness.

Like any good soldier, Manning immediately took these concerns up the chain of command. And how did his superiors respond? His commanding officer told him to “shut up” and get back to rounding up more prisoners for the Iraqi Federal Police to treat however they cared to.

Amongst these types of events, Manning once again began questioning their sexuality. You will have noticed throughout this piece that I have been referring to them using gender-neutral pronouns; this is because, in November of 2009, they reached out to a gender counselor in the States. In their communiques, Manning stated that they thought they were female:

In person, his gender was difficult to discern—he’d begun his transition as a teenager. “Bradley felt he was female,” the counselor told me. “He was very solid on that.” Quickly, their conversation shifted to the practicalities: How does someone transition from male to female? “He really wanted to do surgery,” the counselor recalled. “He was mostly afraid of being alone, being ostracized or somehow weird.” To the counselor, it was clear Manning was in crisis. “I feel like a monster,” he’d typed on his computer several times.

I have chosen to use neutral pronouns because I feel, as a writer who has no connection to Manning or their closest confidantes, I am in no position to judge their current mental state, a circumstance that I hope will become clear soon. I think, however, it is extremely important to note that the sources I have quoted in this piece, and in fact everything I have read about Manning, including in the independent media (for instance, in this segment on Democracy Now!, Glenn Greenwald, one of the most eloquent political writers in the world and one of Manning’s most unshakeable advocates) steadfastly use masculine pronouns in reference to them. That, I think, is unconscionable and shows a lack, though not a malicious one, of understanding of Manning and their experience.

From here, the story might sound more familiar to you. Manning came into contact with Julian Assange, the head of Wikileaks, and Adrian Lamo, a former hacker and, unbeknownst to Manning, an informant for the FBI. After long periods of encrypted communication, Manning decided that, after seeing veritable mountains of information of U.S. war crimes committed in the Middle East, the world had to know. Shortly before making contact with Lamo, they had been involved in an incident in which Manning punched a female colleague, and was due to be discharged for, officially, “adjustment disorder.” In reality, Manning claimed, it was due to his gender identity issues.

11:49:51 AM Manning: and i already got myself into minor trouble, revealing my uncertainty over my gender identity … which is causing me to lose this job … and putting me in an awkward limbo …

11:58:33 AM Manning: and little does anyone know, but among this “visible” mess, theres the mess i created that no-one knows about yet

12:15:11 PM Manning: hypothetical question: if you had free reign [sic] over classified networks for long periods of time … say, 8-9 months … and you saw incredible things, awful things … things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC … what would you do? …

Now, with nothing to lose, Manning wanted to act. And they barely broke a sweat getting the information.

It wasn’t even much of a hack, Manning told Lamo, according to the logs. The Army’s “infosec”—Manning used the military term for information security—was so sloppy that a lowly intel analyst could sift through the government’s most closely held secrets. “it was vulnerable as fuck,” he wrote to Lamo. Manning downloaded data onto a CD marked “Lady Gaga,” lip-syncing as he supposedly did his job: “pretty simple, and unglamorous,” he wrote. No one had ever taken note of him, and no one did now: “everyone just sat at their workstations … watching music ­videos / car chases / buildings exploding … and writing more stuff to CD/DVD.”

Amongst the items Manning uncovered was video of a 2007 Apache helicopter attack, in which the viewer sees through its crosshairs as it guns down a dozen people and injures several others. Two of those killed were Reuters journalists, the pilot having believed that the reporters’ camera was a rocket launcher. Assange would call the video “Collateral Murder.”

The Apache helicopter killings were “wrong,” he wrote to Lamo. But soon he embraced a broader principle: Open the drawers. “information should be free,” he told Lamo, reciting the hacker mantra. According to the chat logs, Manning said he leaked Iraq and Afghan war logs, reports on Guantánamo prisoners, and a cache of diplomatic secrets. “explaining how the first world exploits the third, in detail, from an internal perspective,” Manning thought of himself as honorable, even heroic—“I guess I’m too idealistic,” he said. “i want people to see the truth … regardless of who they are … ­because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.” He hoped to provoke “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms … if not … then we’re doomed as a species.” He added a personal coda: “i will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.”

Wikileaks published the Collateral Murder video on April 5th, 2010, and in July and October respectively, massive numbers of diplomatic cables relating to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. On May 25th, Adrian Lamo met with members of the FBI and showed them his chat logs with Manning. The next day, Bradley Manning was arrested. Wired Magazine, whose editor, Kevin Poulsen, had used Lamo as a source in the past, published only portions of the chat logs in June, which allowed Lamo and Poulsen, according to Glenn Greenwald, to “actively [shield] Poulsen’s longtime associate, Adrian Lamo—as well as government investigators—from having their claims about Manning’s statements scrutinized, and have enabled Lamo to drive much of the reporting of this story by spouting whatever he wants about Manning’s statements without any check.”

And herein, for me, lies the rub. Since their arrest, Manning has been held in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement, during which they have been denied clothes, a tactic often used to degrade and humiliate prisoners, as was seen at Abu Ghraib. Manning released a letter from prison further detailing the abuses they underwent, including the confiscating of his glasses, without which they are essentially blind. It is a horrifying state of affairs in most cases, but must especially be so in the context of their issues with their own gender identity. They are not being charged with terrorism, much less are they Muslim, which in American military custody seem to be interchangeable. They are an American citizen, and yet they are being treated like an animal. Their treatment in prison has been so abhorrent, in fact, that Juan Mendez, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Torture has announced an investigation into it.

Given these circumstances, you might imagine that our President, and indeed our more civilized elected officials, might be up in arms about it. The sickening fact of the matter is that Barack Obama does not think that Manning’s treatment is problematic at all. Hillary Clinton called Manning’s actions “an attack on the international community” and seemed to be derisory of Manning’s sexuality. Juan Mendez has claimed since the announcement of the UN investigation that his efforts have been stifled by the US government. P.J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, was one of the very few people in government to speak up for Manning: he was forced out of his job by the administration. Other officials have called for Manning’s execution (and that of Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers and a Manning supporter) or just been silent on the matter.

If you do not believe this to be unconscionable in the worst way, then you might as well walk away from this post, and the label of progressive. Our government, our military, our entire society are culpable. Bradley Manning has been left behind by almost every person they have ever loved or cared about, by circumstance or by deliberate action. When they entered into the military, their last believed refuge for acceptance and purpose, they were derided and their health issues ignored, and their incompetence in securing computer systems and systematic committing of war crimes opened the door for Manning to make a positive moral decision, one that can not in any reasonable capacity be considered treason, the crime Manning is now accused of. The leaking of the Afghanistan and Iraq files were a proactive attempt to make our country more transparent, which has led to greater public oversight of government decisions, brought to light our government’s insane need to make everything classified (when the sitting President campaigned on the promise to make his administration transparent) and, it can be concluded, allowed, amongst many other events, for the eruption of the Arab Spring, thanks to documents relating to the United States’ cozy relationship with the Tunisian dictatorship and others in the leaked cables. Our government has enshrined indefinite detention as a primary policy, in not just Guantanamo Bay, the 10th anniversary of its opening just past, but across the globe in places like Bagram Air Force Base in Iraq.

No one who can honestly call themselves a progressive can possibly support Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or any other member of government who supports these authoritarian and inhuman policies. There are many, many liberals, those in elected office who Glenn Greenwald documents, and those outside, that want to paper over Obama’s policies on this matter for a simple desire to retain power in November. They call it a “pragmatic choice,” because as bad as Obama is, the Republicans are worse. And maybe that’s true, but it does not excuse him, nor should it be an excuse to vote for him. In fact, as Greenwald points out, if Obama and his Department of Justice had their way, dozens of innocent detainees at Guantanamo would still be in prison, being tortured. That does not even mention the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who have been killed in our imperialist wars, which Obama has continued.

Bradley Manning currently faces a court-martial, for which they face 50 years or more in prison. By voting against the establishment, you can fulfill Amy Goodman’s prediction that history will look kindly on Bradley Manning, just as it has on Daniel Ellsberg, Cynthia Cooper, Thomas Drake, Coleen Rowley, Darren Vandeveld, Mordechai Vanunu, Mark Felt, Sherron Edwards, and numerous others. Informing the public of injustices committed by those in power should never be considered treasonous by any person who values equality and freedom.

I write this post not to free Bradley Manning, or soothe my own tortured conscience, but in the hope that it will have raised questions for you, the reader, that deeply trouble you. That sounds vicious, but the fact of the matter is that our government is perpetrating war crimes across the globe with no accountability. We can provide that accountability, with our voices and at the ballot box. I would urge you before you go to vote in November, or in the coming primaries, that you take a few minutes to find out what the candidates on your ballot stand for. And I hope that if they have spoken in favor of our nation’s campaign of terror, or have remained silent on the matter, that it will cause you to think twice about voting for them, and damn the “pragmatism.” Because at this moment in time, both sides of the aisle would rather make money off of our illegal wars than do the right thing. And if you don’t want the United States of America to stand for terror and torture, you will vote for a true progressive. They exist. You just have to look hard for them.