Bradley Manning was a teenager from Oklahoma when he first joined the Army in 2007. You might say he wound up there.
As his sister would testify years later at his espionage trial, Manning was raised mostly by his mother, an angry, anxious woman who spent each day inside a glass of vodka and Coke. His father, meanwhile, had abandoned the family when Manning was 12, not long after his mother tried overdose on valium. A year later, Manning and his mom moved to England, where he was bullied in high school for being gay until, after graduation, he was sent back to Oklahoma to live with his father and his stepmother. The new arrangement was short-lived, however. When his father found out Manning was gay, he kicked him out of the house. Manning began living out of his car and working various minimum-wage jobs until, eventually, he ended up in an Army recruiting office. Soon, he was a private with a superior who called him “faggoty” during a time when he was forced to hide his sexuality by the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.
It is unfortunate that so long a list of unhappy facts from the first 22 years of Manning’s life is overlooked when we try to comprehend why he downloaded hundreds of thousands of classified military files, including diplomatic cables, battlefield logs, and a video of soldiers in an Apache helicopter killing journalists and at least one Iraqi civilian; why he lip-synced Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” as he did it; why he bragged about this monumentally dangerous act to a stranger on the Internet by saying, “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me plastered all over the world press”; why, after being convicted of espionage, he said to the judge, “I am sorry that my actions hurt people”; and, worst of all, why he was sentenced yesterday to up to 35 years in prison.
However you feel about Manning’s decision to leak classified military documents, it is almost certainly the case that his story is not that of a spy or a martyr for radical transparency, the two dueling narratives that have dominated perceptions of his trial. In reality, Manning was a neglected, perpetually mistreated person who somehow, despite getting in physical fights with one superior officer, sending pictures of himself in a dress to another, and being found on the floor of his office with a knife by a third, was still given access to military documents apparently deemed so secret that one should spend decades in prison for publishing them.
As Manning’s employer, the U.S. Army failed him, not only by ignoring him but by verbally abusing him (not to mention forcing him to conceal his sexuality). When Manning saw the Army engaging in the truly horrific act of gunning down civilians and children from an Apache helicopter, he decided to leak it. He was angry. He was right. He was 22. He said stupid things on the Internet. He later quoted Howard Zinn, in tears, “There is not a flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.” None of that makes him a traitor.
Mind you, Manning was not convicted of any crime for releasing the helicopter video. Because anyone who saw that video—including the judge—agreed that Manning was justified. Certainly, though, it is true that he did not review all the other 700,000 files with the requisite whistleblower’s sincerity. And that is why he faces prison time. But 35 years? The aimlessness of Manning’s genuine anger shouldn’t be conflated with a contempt for one’s country. There are so many good reasons Manning had to be angry—as a person, as a U.S citizen, and as a soldier. If there was any moment for the court to have recognized this distinction between anger and malice, to recognize that he too had been betrayed, it was with his prison sentence. As a friend of Manning would later tell Wired magazine, Manning’s biggest concern was whether his leak “was going to make a difference.”
Recall that no one, not even Manning, contended that he is innocent. He pled guilty to charges worth 20 years in prison and even apologized for leaking the military documents. And still, the judge gave him 15 more years. For some perspective on how outrageous that number is, consider that the soldiers in the Apache helicopter who fired on journalists and children received no prison time—even though Manning was found to be justified in blowing the whistle. In fact, a military investigation cleared the soldiers of any wrongdoing. Consider also that Manning has already spent more than three years in prison. And for the first 11 months of that time, he was in solitary confinement determined by the United Nations to be cruel, inhumane, and degrading.
So why was the court was so willing to entertain such a steep prison sentence? Before Manning was sentenced, the prosecution asked he be given an unbelievable 60 years in prison, explaining that, “there is value in deterrence, your honor; this court must send a message to any soldier contemplating stealing classified information.”
First, it is entirely unclear whether there is value in “deterrence.” According to the National Academy of Sciences report from earlier this year, it isn’t clear whether even the death penalty deters crime. But more to the point, the possibly torturous conditions under which Manning was held for almost a year didn’t even serve to deter former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden from leaking a massive number of top secret documents. If anything they simply deterred him from staying in the U.S. after he did it.
In the end, we all seem to have taken the 22-year-old kid from Oklahoma who downloaded these classified files for something he was not. One has to wonder, for example, how much of the prosecution’s vitriol for Manning was actually meant for Snowden, the good-looking Internet privacy troubadour who fled the judicial system Manning himself never sought to skirt. Or how much of it was for Julian Assange, who so completely—and carelessly—fused Manning’s case with the story of WikiLeaks that Manning became the unwitting and unfit symbol for a radical transparency revolution. In one of the stranger statements to come out of the trial, Assange called the private’s harsh sentence a “hard-won minimum term” and a “tactical victory.” No doubt the prosecution considers the 35 years a small victory as well over the “traitor” who “deserves to spend the majority of his remaining life in confinement,” as they said on the day of his sentencing.
Today, Manning gave his own statement about his story, about the ordeal that has been the first 25 years of his life:
I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility). I look forward to receiving letters from supporters and having the opportunity to write back.
Chelsea E. Manning
Illustration by Jason Reed