First published on August 1st, 2013, following Manning’s conviction. Rewritten throughout on August 22nd in light of Manning’s sentencing and public coming out.
The news that the person called Bradley Manning in the bulk of media stories over the past few years is more correctly called “Chelsea” was, to say the least, surprising to those of us who followed the case closely. We had, for the most part, thought she preferred “Breanna.” Other than this detail, however, the “sudden” revelation that Manning was a trans woman was neither sudden nor a revelation. In fact, understanding anything about this case without that information is essentially impossible. The sole reason that Chelsea Manning is going to spend the next thirty-five years in prison is that she is transgender. For this reason, she was and is being systematically psychologically tortured by the US Army with the express consent of the civilian government. And the sole reason for any of this is that it’s easier to publicly lynch a trans woman than it is to address the criminal deficiencies of the US Military in the course of the now ostensibly concluded Iraq War.
Let us then review the facts. Well before she leaked classified information to the public, Manning openly identified in multiple conversations as experiencing Gender Identity Disorder. Manning actively maintained a female persona named Breanna. Manning dressed in female clothing. And Manning visibly experienced severe psychological distress stemming from these facts. All of this can be summarized succinctly: Manning actively took on a female identity, and did so long before the events she’s ostensibly going to prison for.
A brief word on those events. For the purposes of this discussion, at least, let us going to set aside the question of whether Manning’s leaks were correct or moral. (For the record, I think they were, but this is mostly beside the point.) Instead let us take as read that the military itself would have preferred that Manning not give a mass of classified documents to Wikileaks. Certainly it has seemed terribly upset about it since it has happened. But if, in fact, this was something they did not want to happen, their behavior prior to it actually happening is almost completely impossible to explain.
There can be few places in American society more rawly hostile to a trans woman than the military. There are no easy ways to reject the identity that one has held for two decades. Transitioning is an often brutal and lonely process, and that’s for the people lucky enough to be able to afford it. Even with trans-friendly health insurance the costs of a surgical transition can easily reach $20k. And trans-friendly health insurance is the invisible pink unicorn of the American healthcare system. Indeed, adequate support in general is essentially unheard of for trans people – I can count on zero hands the number of trans people I have met to have been given access to adequate mental health resources, hormone therapies, surgical options, and a support network of family and friends.
In 2009, Chelsea Manning had none of them. Cast adrift in a military where the comparatively more accepted phenomenon of homosexuality (which has been inexplicably treated as the primary issue with Manning) was still criminalized, there was nothing resembling a support network for her. The Army Hospitals near Baghdad were not offering hormone therapy or sex reassignment surgery. Indeed, Manning’s existing support network of an online community of fellow trans people – a slender branch on which far too many trans people have to stake all hope even of the basic human need for friendship – was largely taken away from her upon entering the military. As for mental health resources…
Actually, let’s pause for a moment here. It is easy for those of us who are cisgender to fail to appreciate the sheer and unrelenting mental agony that is being transgender without having actually transitioned. A staggering 41% of transgender people attempt suicide, compared to 1.6% of the general population.
These numbers, however, merely provide a sense of the extremes. They do not get at the heart of the issue – the phenomenon known as dysphoria. The concept of dysphoria is simple. It is the set of emotions and feelings caused by the constant knowledge that your self-identity and your physical body are at odds. Metaphors do not do the concept justice. The closest parallel that might be familiar to the general public is the phenomenon of phantom limb pain, in which the brain of an amputee refuses to recognize that the lost limb is gone and continues to frantically and agonizingly insist upon its presence. Except instead of having one appendage that the brain and physical reality differ violently on the trans person is forced to react with perpetual horror to the fact that their entire body is wrong. One trans blogger, Kinsey Hope, describes it viscerally: “That deep down instinctual feeling of “what the fuck”-ness that you get when you see a shattered knee bending a leg the wrong way or even worse see that bent leg on yourself. It’s not rational. It doesn’t make logical sense. It’s utter instinctual response. That’s bodily dysphoria.”
This is what Chelsea Manning was suffering when she was stationed in Iraq. Indeed, it is likely what she was suffering from 24/7. She was open with her supervisors about this. And yet she received no meaningful assistance. When she was found on the floor curled in the fetal position, she received no assistance. When she flipped over a table and attempted to grab a gun from a gun rack, she received no assistance. The only counseling offered to her was designed merely as triage – to get her back to work. Despite widespread awareness of her mental health issues, at no point prior to her arrest for providing classified information to Wikileaks did anyone do anything that could even remotely be considered “treatment.”
By the military’s own admission, Manning should have been discharged in December of 2009, after the gun rack incident. She should also, under military procedure at least, surely have been discharged when she came out to her roommate, in violation of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. DADT was, after all, used to force soldiers such as Dan Choi, an Arabic translator of vital importance, out of the military because they were gay. This was one of the major reasons why it was, quite rightly, eventually abolished with full support from military hierarchy – it was being used to force good soldiers out of the military. And yet at the height of DADT a Private with gender identity disorder and severe mental health issues resulting from it, who had come out to another soldier, was not only left in the military but put in close proximity to classified information. How could this have even happened?
Part of it, surely, was that the entire security system surrounding this supposedly vital information was, for lack of a better description, a sick joke. Passwords were routinely left in Post-It note on supposedly secure terminals, and no checks were made to ensure that sensitive information wasn’t taken out of the facility. Reports indicate that it was common for soldiers to entertain themselves with pirated DVDs bought from the Iraqi population, a security hole that is mind-wrenching in its vastness. Given the obvious lack of serious concern for security it cannot be called a surprise that nobody thought anything of giving Manning access to it. The security hole left by giving an obviously mentally ill woman access to classified information was one of dozens of comparably sized holes. The fact of the matter is that nobody cared about the security of this material until the leaking of it became an embarrassment for the State Department. Classification has long since become a reflexive process with no relationship to actual risk assessment – better to classify something for no reason than risk leaving something unclassified. As a result, classified information is widely recognized as valueless among those who deal with it.
But the larger part of it is even more unseemly. Manning was kept in place for the same reasons that justified the grotesque abuses of the Stop-Loss procedures that kept soldiers on a merry-go-round of endless deployments. Simply put, in order to feed the grotesque beast that was the Iraq War, the military couldn’t afford to be picky about who it let in. The fact that Manning was manifestly unfit for duty – her supervisors have admitted that the gun rack incident alone was grounds for discharge – wasn’t allowed to matter. Given the choice between the size of military presence in Iraq and the safety of it, the United States Government made the conscious choice to prioritize size.
This is the real shocking truth of Chelsea Manning – that there were hundreds more soldiers who were equally obvious disasters waiting to happen. All of them were allowed – indeed, required to serve out their deployment. I would suggest that the military should consider itself lucky that Manning was the only such disaster to actually happen, but this would require pretending that incidents like Abu Ghraib, the Collateral Murder video itself, and the entire litany of horrors and human rights abuses that took place in the name of the War on Terror did not happen. Stories about how military recruiters routinely advised applicants to lie on their applications, or about how “medical waivers” were issued to allow physically unfit applicants to be recruited. In the end, the military wanted warm bodies in Iraq. Little else was allowed to matter.
This alone is criminally negligent. By paying inadequate attention to mental health issues among its personnel the Army ended up leaving someone with crippling mental illness in the proximity of classified data. That something bad happened as a result cannot be called a surprise. This is, after all, the entire reason that security screening exists. Chelsea Manning was not, by the Army’s own standards, an appropriate person to leave unattended with classified intelligence. And yet she was put in exactly that position. To blame her for the consequences of that decision would seem particularly sadistic, or, at least, it would if it didn’t have to be put in context with everything else done to Chelsea Manning.
Faced with the choice between admitting to systemic failures of good sense that had resulted in considerable embarrassment (but little else) or between lashing out at a mentally ill woman who should have been given help long before the situation turned out as it did, the United States unambiguously went all in on the latter option. What happened next is nothing short of a slow-motion lynching.
Obviously the phrase “lynching” is incendiary. However I do not choose it lightly. Central to the concept of lynching is that it is an act of appalling violence that is done both extrajudicially and on a societal level, and done for no reasons other than hatred of the victim’s very identity. That what happened to Manning has (thus far) proved non-lethal is ultimately beside the point. In terms of horror, it is more than made up for by the agonizingly languid pace of her suffering. And more generally, for all that the term “lynching” is inflammatory, there is simply not a word that comes closer to capturing the obscenity of what we did to Chelsea Manning.
The initial torture of Manning was, in point of fact, extrajudicial. After her arrest and trial, however, none of this was treated as particularly relevant. The judiciary was all too willing to rubber stamp the military’s decision-making, as it historically always has been when confronted with a lynch mob. In the process we all became Chelsea Manning’s torturers. And our most profound and galling act of torture was to pretend that this was about something other than the fact that she was trans.
This torture extended well beyond her jailers. Statements of support for Manning were limited to the computer hacker subculture and to defenses of the moral legitimacy of leaking the diplomatic cables. None are offered from the transgender community or on the basis of her obviously poor mental health. A Google News search on “Bradley Manning Transgender” found just one or two results prior to her post-sentencing exit from the closet. On the whole, it was, bizarrely, Gawker that covered this seemingly crucial aspect of the story best. An entire international media system focused at times obsessively on this case, and imposed what amounted to an informational blackout lest some of its most disturbing facets come out. This does not extend merely to the fact that Manning is trans, but the entire culture that surrounded her leak. The fact that she should not have been in that position in the first place is largely and consciously ignored.
But what is more chilling is the way in which this suppression seems calculated. To exhaustively list the obscene lapses of judgment on the part of mainstream news sources would be impossible. I will instead limit myself to the highlights. There was, as already mentioned, a troubling tendency to equate Manning’s transgender status with homosexuality. There was the CNN coverage that, in discussing the table overturning incident, omits all mention of the most serious part of it – the attempt to grab a weapon from the gun rack. The same CNN story inexplicably referred to Breanna as Manning’s “alleged” female alter ego, a hedge that has no basis except to make it seem as though the facts are less clear than they are. This is typical of coverage. The fact of Manning’s gender dysphoria was regularly acknowledged, but any consideration of this fact’s massive implications was consciously, deliberately, avoided. Even today the announcement is being ignored, with CNN reporting that “he wants to live as a woman,” a spectacular missing of the point that would be funny if humor were actually still possible in this sorry mess.
And yet for all that the information was ignored, it is equally difficult to argue that it wasn’t central to why Manning has been made to suffer the way she has. She was charged, ultimately, not because of the severity of her crimes, but because she was a convenient scapegoat. Given the choice between addressing the diseased military culture that thought giving a mentally ill trans woman security clearance was a good idea and locking the trans woman up, we can hardly be surprised that the military opted for the altogether tidier solution of locking Chelsea Manning up and throwing away the key. No doubt to many of her jailers she was a freak who self-evidently belonged behind bars anyway.
What is perhaps more surprising is the evident passion that the military and civilian government had for making sure that Manning was thoroughly punished for the untenable situation they put her in. Manning’s attorneys were blocked from calling all but two of the forty-eight witnesses they attempted to call, and the prosecutor moonlighted as an employee of the same Justice Department that is attempting to arrest and charge the person to whom Manning is alleged to have leaked the documents. Military prosecutors refused all attempts at a plea-bargain, offering only the concession of promising not to actually seek the death penalty for the staggeringly severe charge of aiding the enemy. And now she’s set for a prison sentence that will finally allow her freedom at the age of sixty.
This too brings up disturbing memories of lynching and the tacit complicity of the state in such crimes. What characterized lynching – indeed, what caused it – was the knowledge on the part of the lynch mob that they were safe. The justice system was designed to let them go. It is the horrific state of affairs where every single check and balance has failed, and where the state’s institutional disdain for a certain segment of its citizenship becomes a de facto open season on them. This is what makes Manning’s fate so utterly abhorrent – the fact that there was both a systemic failure that allowed her crimes to happen and a systemic decision to prioritize punishing her as severely as possible over addressing that failure.
The determination to convict Manning, however, does not hold a candle to the treatment Manning was subjected to in the year and a half during which the government dragged its feet on her trial. For a solid year Chelsea Manning was put in solitary confinement. In a belated farce of an acknowledgment of her mental health issues she was put on suicide watch and left naked in her cell. Remember that her mental health issues stem primarily from her own gender dysphoria and consider the psychological impact of being abandoned, naked, to contemplate the body you are trapped in. Seemingly nobody considered the possibility that her suicidal tendencies might be caused by the combination of gender dysphoria and the fact that her contact with the outside world consisted of twenty minutes a day of being shackled in the sun. Past that, she was left to crane her neck to see a reflection of a window barely visible from her cell.
But the word “lynching” further suggests that this sort of brutality is normal. Tragically, however, the death of transgender people is all too normal. It is impossible to look at the act of charging Manning with a capital crime outside of the context of the horrific violence to which transgender people are subjected on a regular basis. 61% of transgender people report being the victims of physical assault, and 64% report being the victims of sexual assault. The homelessness rate among the transgender population is 20%. Of those, fully 29% report being turned away from homeless shelters because of their gender identity.
Like Manning’s story, these stories are routinely underreported. When they are reported there is a shocking lack of respect for the gender identity of the victims. Their transgender status is often treated as an odd character trait. The names that they actively rejected are routinely described as their “real names” while the identities they actually lived under are treated as aliases and alter egos. In this regard there is nothing even remotely unusual about the way in which Manning’s identity is serially ignored by the media. Like the scores of trans sex workers murdered by their clients or those who overdosed self-medicating their pain, she’s ultimately disposable, except inasmuch as her death fulfills some other agenda.
Unsurprisingly, even gay rights groups remained silent during the Manning trial. Manning, after all, was apparently not a gay man but a heterosexual woman. For all that the standard acronym ends with a T for transgender, the trans population has long been incidental to large swaths of the gay rights lobby. The HRC consciously offered concessions on legal protections for trans people in exchange for progress on gay marriage. That they should decline to fish Chelsea Manning out from under the bus they threw her under is as unsurprising as every other fact in this desperately sorry affair.
Finally, of course, there are the moments of individual culpability. Adrian Lamo has become something of a pariah in circles that previously feted him for his conduct in all of this. Still, it’s worth highlighting. It is not so much the decision that what Manning told him needed to be reported. No matter what one’s personal position on the ethics of Manning’s leaks, the position that they were dangerous and needed to be reported to authorities is at least an understandable one. What is less easy to simply accept is Lamo’s decision to reassure Manning that what she said would be kept private.
To reiterate, Manning came to Lamo in part because of Lamo’s openness about his own struggles with depression. Lamo looked at someone who came to him for help, reassured her that “I’m a journalist and a minister. You can pick either, and treat this as a confession or an interview (never to be published) & enjoy a modicum of legal protection.” He then proceeded to play the sympathetic confidant, gathering Manning’s confessions, and even having the gall to try to get Manning to hook him up with Julian Assange before calmly turning around and selling Manning out to her military superiors.
The horror here is not that Lamo turned Manning in, but that he chose to play the supportive confidant for so long before doing so. It is the double-edged nature of Lamo’s behavior that is so shocking; the fact that someone who Manning turned to for the help she so obviously and so desperately needed pretended to give that help while stabbing her in the back. That Lamo kept fishing for more information, kept going back, pretending to be Manning’s friend seems, like so much else in this case, an almost gratuitous excess. That Manning should be turned in by the one person who actually, for a brief moment, appeared to be giving her what she should have been given from the start – someone to help her with her obvious and understandable psychological difficulties – is a cruel irony, not least of all because there was another way.
And that is, in the end, the truth of it. There were so many other ways this cold have gone. Every single step along the road to Chelsea Manning’s lynching was preventable by any number of people. The only person who couldn’t stop it – who was trapped in a nightmare she couldn’t do anything about, one that was tearing her apart and breaking her down to where she was no longer competent to make decisions regarding the classified information she was being made to handle – was Chelsea Manning herself. Everyone else in this sorry story could have done something. Someone could have decided not to ignore an obvious security risk. Someone could have decided that the military’s need for analysts was not more important than looking at an obviously mental ill woman and saying “look, you don’t belong here.” Someone could have gone after some other link in the chain of idiotic decisions that led to the leak instead of scapegoating the most vulnerable person involved. Someone could have decided against torturing her for a year. Someone could have decided not to try to put her in jail for the rest of her life. Any of these decisions would have averted what happened. And nobody made a single one of them.
There’s one image, in all of this, that gets me. I can read about virtually any detail of the sickening affair that the media at large has called the Bradley Manning Trial with nothing more than the exhaustedly simmering rage that accompanies most news stories. Except for the little detail that Manning kept a fairy wand on her desk while on deployment.
Trans people often fixate on images like this – the butterfly is another one. Because for the butterfly the transition from the wrong body to the beautiful one they want isn’t years of pain and ostracizing. It’s just a nap. In this case it’s the image that someone kind could finally, at some crucial moment, intervene. That all it would take to make all of the pain go away is the right person waving a magic wand or sprinkling a bit of fairy dust. That someone could just come by and say “yes, I understand what you’re going through, here, let me help you.” There’s a beautiful innocence to it.
Chelsea Manning’s fairy never came. Instead, over and over again, individual people looked at the situation and made the decision that the systematic torture of Chelsea Manning was an acceptable price to pay. And yet if you ask what was bought in exchange for this price it remains difficult to give any sort of answer. The underlying failures of security that allowed Manning’s leaks to take place remain. No security has been gained. The only crime that has been addressed is by far the smallest of the lot. All that can be said to have been gained by the torture of Chelsea Manning is, in the end, the basic fact that she gas suffered unfathomably, and will keep doing so for the next thirty-five years.
Apparently that’s benefit enough.