Early on the morning of July 5, Chelsea Manning was taken from the Kansas barracks where she is imprisoned to a nearby hospital. The Army leaked this information to the media, only to keep her lawyers and loved ones in the dark about what had happened for nearly a week. It wasn’t until the 11th that they could confirm that Manning had attempted suicide. “Last week, Chelsea made a decision to end her life,” an official statement read. The next day, Manning tweeted, “I am okay. I am glad to be alive.”
The thought that Manning might not survive her prison sentence—thirty-five years, with the possibility of parole after seven or eight—is almost unbearable. She and Edward Snowden are just about America’s only two heartening responses to the last fifteen years of this miserable war, and of the two of them, only Manning gave up everything. It doesn’t belittle what Snowden did to observe that he was shrewd in carrying it out. He made it out of the US, found a safe home in Moscow, and became the subject of an intelligent and sensitive documentary. He got his face and voice beamed into a wheeled video monitor that can roll around and socialize at conferences and panels. He reunited with his comically lithe dancer-babe girlfriend. Exile and the loathing of the US national security apparatus are very real burdens, but it’s not hard to see a little romance and glamour in Snowden’s situation. But Manning went first. She didn’t have a predecessor whose mistakes she could learn from, and instead of escaping she was thrown in a box.
The month after her sentencing, Manning announced that she would no longer use the first name Bradley, that she was female, and that she wanted to transition in prison. In doing so, she consciously gave people an excuse to dismiss her act of political courage as the lashing out of an unstable deviant. She guaranteed that her life in prison would be much harder than normal, that she would stand out, that the fact of her existence would challenge the institution that now controlled every part of her life (the Army, refusing to recognize Manning as a woman, insists that her hair be cut short). She announced herself a member of the country’s most despised sexual minority, and she did so to a public that was mostly delighted to see her being locked away for decades.
At the time, I was bewildered by Manning’s choice of that particular moment to come out, but she has very consciously made life difficult for herself before. She joined the military in the first place because she wanted to beat the gender dysphoria out of herself. In a 2010 email to her supervisor, Manning disclosed she was transgender and attached a photo of herself in a blond wig. She wrote:
This is my problem. I’ve had signs of it for a very long time. It’s caused problems within my family. I thought a career in the military would get rid of it. It’s not something I seek for attention, and I’ve been trying very, very hard to get rid of it by placing myself in situations where it would be impossible. But, it’s not going away; it’s haunting me more and more as I get older.
The email was presented at Manning’s trial by her defense team, one piece of evidence in a chain arguing that Manning’s actions were a side effect of her traumatized emotional state rather than the product of political calculation. With a guaranteed guilty verdict on the way, Manning’s attorneys were aiming for a lighter sentence than the ninety years she potentially faced, and this meant portraying Manning as childlike and broken. As part of this strategy, Manning apologized for her actions and said she should have worked through official channels instead: “How on Earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better over those with proper authority?” The lawyers also elicited testimony from a Navy psychiatrist who said Manning was in a “post-adolescent idealistic phase.” This diagnosis will be familiar to fans of the movie Clueless, but it is not recognized by actual clinical psychiatry. The doctor added that this imaginary phase “drives a lot of activism on college campuses, and the riots that eventually throughout history happened on campuses.” The theory that Manning was idealistic and overwhelmed by her mental health problems worked as a defense strategy, but even an effective courtroom melodrama shouldn’t be confused with reality. Though Manning’s choices have had consequences for her that many people would view as disastrous, there’s nothing to suggest those choices weren’t made in full awareness of what could happen next. “I’ve been trying very, very hard to get rid of it by placing myself in situations where it would be impossible,” Manning wrote of her transgenderism. You can act out of desperation and still know just what you’re doing.
Thinking about the huge numbers of documents Manning leaked—ninety-one thousand documents on the war in Afghanistan, nearly four hundred thousand on Iraq, a quarter million US diplomatic cables—you can lose sight of just how many different facets of the American wars in the Middle East are in those documents. The US was confronted with some fifteen thousand civilian casualties in Iraq that it had not previously recognized. US troops had also killed roughly seven thousand civilians who came too close to checkpoints, including people with mental illnesses, pregnant women, and people rushing sick relatives to a hospital. There were abuses committed by private contractors, the Army’s failure to investigate reports of torture carried out by Iraqi police, and strong evidence that Iran was actively supporting militant groups. When the US accidentally killed civilians in Afghanistan, it sent their relatives a couple thousand dollars for each of the dead, by way of apology. Manning’s leaks also documented US efforts to exaggerate its nation-building progress in Afghanistan as well as geopolitical intrigue surrounding the wars’ prosecution: the possibility that Pakistan’s notorious intelligence service provided aid to the Taliban, the US giving Afghan forces credit for operations that were actually carried out by US special forces, payments delivered to Afghan radio stations and print media outlets in exchange for favorable coverage. No act of journalism did more to illuminate so much of the texture of America’s failed efforts to bring peace and democracy to those countries.
After her arrest, the government charged Manning with, among other things, “aiding the enemy,” which is punishable by the death penalty. The government wanted her dead. Though acquitted of that charge, Manning still received a harsher sentence than did some people the US considers to be terrorists. In January, two convicted al-Shabaab militants were sentenced to eleven years in prison in a Brooklyn courthouse, and prosecutors had only sought fifteen years. Though Manning’s sentence is clearly excessive, I think it makes sense in light of the specific way in which Manning challenged the war on terror. She made visible a war that depends on being invisible, that could not still be happening if its consequences were regularly seen and felt in the US. It happens thousands of miles away, its civilian victims are euphemistically erased by the terms “unlawful enemy combatants” and “EKIA”—enemy killed in action—and the use of drones and private contractors has reduced casualties among volunteer soldiers to nearly zero. At Manning’s trial, a witness who discussed Manning’s female identity with her in Iraq said she had an obvious need to share her secret with someone. “You shine a light on it, and it’s done,” he said. “It’s out there, and I think it was a big relief to share something like that.” I think the implication here is obvious: that the secret Manning carried inside herself pushed her, in a perverse way, to share other secrets as well. But it seems a bit rich for a government that kills people while nobody is watching to read perversity into anyone else’s feelings about secrecy and disclosure.
In the three years between her sentencing and her suicide attempt, the government has tried to make Manning invisible, too. In one online chat she had with the hacker who eventually reported her to authorities, she wrote, “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 . . . as boy . . .” That, of course, is exactly what happened. Only the wig photo from her 2010 email to her supervisor shows her with long hair, an image from a period in which her gender identity was not yet something she could openly embrace. Manning has somewhat resisted invisibility by writing a column for the Guardian, but her pieces are only accompanied by an illustration that depicts her with long hair, and otherwise the internet gives you photographs from her trial, from her days in uniform—exactly the images she didn’t want plastered all over. There are just two photographs from her time in prison, as far as I know. One is a profile shot and the other is a frontal portrait. They show Manning shortly after hormone therapy began in 2015. No one except for the few allowed to visit her in person knows what she looks like now.
With Manning’s attempt to end her life, the government nearly had its death wish for her granted, and she still has years to go. But if she makes it through those years, she will do for herself what she has already done for many others: refuse to let the United States sweep another victim of the war on terror under the rug.