Chelsea Manning's memoir reflects on tormented childhood, gender and value of freedom of information
Editor’s note: This article contains descriptions of rape and sexual assault.
Chelsea Manning’s story could have been so many different books.
She can tell the story of growing up in an increasingly violent home, where both parents struggled with alcoholism. Or the story of coming of age in rural Oklahoma, where gender roles are, as she says, as “hard and fixed as the land,” and where she knew by age four that she — assigned male at birth — wanted to wear her big sister’s clothes and makeup. Manning’s story is also one of a brilliant kid who began the simplest computer coding at age 6 and went on to win science awards while battling school bullies and inner demons.
Ultimately, her life became the tale of someone who believed deeply in truth and freedom of information and felt that Americans deserved to know what was happening on the ground during the Iraq War. Those beliefs inspired her to upload more than 700,000 classified military and diplomatic records she’d smuggled out of Iraq on the memory card of her digital camera while serving in the Army. That data dump led to her being charged with 22 counts related to unauthorized possession and distribution of classified material and a 35-year sentence to military prison.
“README.txt” by Chelsea Manning cover. (Courtesy)
Manning has put it all into a single memoir, titled “README.txt.” The book begins with a description of Manning at a Barnes & Noble store one winter night in 2010 trying to upload a massive cache of information on painfully slow public internet.
“My thoughts in that moment? This isn’t going to work,” Manning explains, saying she had always imagined giving the information to a media outlet like the Washington Post in a sort of Woodward and Bernstein scenario in a parking garage.
But with little time while on leave from Iraq, she says it became clear that the news media hadn’t caught up with the digital age.
“The information age was starting to hit all these institutions for the first time, encryption and things like that,” Manning says.
Her conversations with news organizations left them responding, “Well can’t you just explain it to me in an email?” she says, to which she would answer no.
Manning says she needed to get the information out — that there was a huge discrepancy between what the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan looked like on the ground and how it didn’t comport with the post-Obama election media portrayal, which said that “maybe this wasn’t so bad.” To Manning, there was “every indication” that this was a continuing, ongoing problem.
“It was the true face of 20th-century asymmetric warfare,” Manning says.
“README.txt” takes a turn away from those opening scenes describing the information dump that Manning is best known for, to her upbringing in rural Oklahoma where she — then still conforming to an enforced male identity — blamed herself for the turmoil in her family.
“I thought I was the problem. I thought I’m not doing well enough. I’m not performing well enough academically. I’m not popular enough at school. I’m not good enough at sports,” she says. “I knew I was different.”
At 4 years old, Manning wanted to know when she would be able to live like her older sister — wearing makeup and women’s clothes. The questions persisted until Manning’s father gave her a very vague answer about “different plumbing” and told her to participate in more boy activities. In the years that followed, Manning was given military toys and an old IBM computer.
Manning went on to learn to code, excell in school, win the school science fair and go on to a state-level competition.
Despite her successes, Manning was beaten regularly by her alcoholic father — including an incident where Manning was able to wrest the belt away only to have her father return with a gun. This all happened while Manning’s mother’s alcoholism spiraled out of control. Manning remembers cradling her mother, unconscious, after a suicide attempt, as Manning’s sister drove them to the emergency room.
Manning joined the United States military as an intelligence officer with a strong belief in the work the military was doing and a want to contribute. But the longer Manning served, the more missteps and cover-ups she witnessed and the more disillusioned she became. She also described the stress and the guilt she sometimes felt.
She was out for lunch one day when the Combined Joint Operations Task Force announced that they were executing an operation on a target she was tracking.
“I had updated the target packet for where this individual was,” she says. “And he had moved, but they didn’t update their things. They went to the old 2007 location and just left a trail of chaos. And then left.”
By the time she returned, she says they had already started the operation, which they then labeled “dry hole” — the terminology for a mission failed.
Manning says she was gutted by the death of a fellow soldier and not being able to tell joint operations she had had new information.
She says she saw fellow troops taking actions that endangered civilians, describing videos that show how desensitized some troops became to the loss of civilian life while others were mortified.
“You sort of get a sense of the best of humanity and the worst of humanity in the same 15 to 30 minutes,” she says. “And this happened a lot.”
Manning also says she was raped and deliberately didn’t report it despite how it emotionally drained her: “I just tried to pretend it away.”
Manning was arrested in Iraq for her massive data dump in May of 2010. The leak included military and diplomatic documents and evidence of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as U.S attempts to cover up the CIA torture program. She was transferred to a U.S. base in Kuwait where she spent a year of solitary confinement at Quantico. Punishments there included being stripped naked, subjected to sleep deprivation and having her glasses removed so she couldn’t read. But before Quantico, she was held in a sort of cage.
“I called it the ‘tiger cage’ because it was like a stainless steel mesh thing,” she says. “My brain melted. It was like 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Kuwait. Middle of summer.”
The United Nations ruled that the treatment was cruel and inhumane, but the Pentagon refused to allow a UN representative to meet with Manning.
Manning’s Court Martial trial began in 2013, and she says she couldn’t use the defense that she uploaded the data for a reason. Instead, the three lines of defense open to her were that she didn’t do it; that she didn’t understand what she was doing because she was mentally incapacitated or using drugs or other substances; or mitigation, which meant putting up a whole host of psychologists or psychiatrists.
Manning wanted to ask one of her biggest questions: “How can you have a public consent when you don’t have ‘informed’ consent about what is happening on the ground?”
Within a month, Manning was convicted on 17 of the 22 charges against her and a month later was sentenced to 35 years in prison. It was the longest sentence handed down to a whistleblower in American history.
During her prison sentence, Manning fought for the right to take medications to begin her transition to female in court.
“It ended up being a public fight,” she says. “Apparently, my coming out was a big deal.”
At the age of 30, Manning was pardoned by former President Barack Obama. But Manning says she doesn’t view her story as a story of redemption.
“Institutions are just completely unable to cope, or society is unable to understand, this information-based world that I’ve been swimming in since I was a child.”
Now, Manning warns of the fragmentation of the internet.
“There are different internets depending on where you are,” she says. And even depending on which posts you click on and like shape what information the algorithm shows.
These days, Manning says she’s feeling more centered and grounded. She’s working as a security consultant and has written her early life story. Now, she hopes to talk about other things.
“We have a few very rough decades ahead of us. Climate change [is] happening and the rise of reactionary politics and the far right … I’m quite alarmed,” she says. “I’m optimistic generally, but we have harder times ahead of us.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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