New York Magazine has published "Bradley Manning's Army of One," a feature by Steve Fishman profiling the young soldier accused of serving as a leak source to Wikileaks while serving as an intelligence officer in the Army.
Fishman's article about "one of the most unusual revolutionaries in American history" breaks new ground in exploring some of the experiences that may have shaped Manning's life, and some of what might have been happening for the soldier internally before the alleged leaks. That includes gender and sexual identity issues Manning is believed to have been dealing with while in the Army (more to the point, dealing with the hostility and hate from others around those deeply personal matters).
Those same issues have been previously addressed here on Boing Boing, but Fishman investigation makes clear what reading through the lines on the Lamo chat logs only hinted at— and helps explain why Wired News may have held back some of the log transcripts it did. Manning was going through a lot, it seems, including a crisis of conscience over what the soldier was witnessing in Iraq. But another profound personal change was under way at the time: transitioning gender from male to female. Manning had already shifted to self-identify as female by the time the exchange with Adrian Lamo took place.
For Manning, nothing was okay. In October 2009, he arrived at Forward Operating Base Hammer, a dusty backwater 40 miles from Baghdad. There, Manning felt more isolated than ever-- "it's awfully stressful, lonely." Intel analysts sometimes worked fourteen-to-fifteenhour stretches in "a dimly lit room crowded to the point you cant move an inch without having to quietly say 'excuse me sir,' 'pardon me sergeant major,' " he wrote. "cables trip you up everywhere, papers stacked everywhere ..." Usually, there was a large central TV screen where an analyst could watch the war play in endless loop. You could zoom in on the raw footage from helicopters or even helmet cams. At times it felt like watching nonstop snuff films. "It's groundhog day," Manning wrote: every day the same. Later, his super visors said he displayed dissociative behavior, his mind in one place and his body in another--but that was the nature of the job. An intel analyst sat at his work station and targeted the enemy, reducing a human being to a few salient points. Then he made a quick decision based on imperfect information: kill, capture, exploit, source. Any illusions Manning had about saving lives quickly vanished. At one point, he went to a superior with what he believed to be a mistake. The Iraqi Federal Police had rounded up innocent people, he said. Get back to work, he was told. "I was never noticed," he later said.
Meanwhile, Manning's concerns about his sexual identity were intensifying. In November 2009, he made contact on the web with a gender counselor back in the States. When I met the counselor, he was easygoing and upbeat for someone who'd spent hours talking to servicemen who believed they were inhabiting the wrong body. He knew what he was talking about, though. 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. The statement referred partly to his gender struggles but more to his job. He'd taken an oath not to divulge this type of information. But then it spilled out. He told the counselor about a targeting mission gone bad in Basra. "Two groups of locals were converging in this one area. Manning was trying to figure out why they were meeting," the counselor told me. On Manning's information, the Army moved swiftly, dispatching a unit to hunt them down. Manning had thought all went well, until a superior explained the outcome. "Ultimately, some guy loosely connected to the group got killed," the counselor said. To the counselor, it was clear: Manning felt that there was blood on his hands. "He was very, very distressed."
One of the figures in Fishman's story is ZJ Antolak, aka Zinnia Jones, a genderqueer YouTuber in whom "Bradass87" confided over IM from Iraq. New York Magazine provided an extra snippet of chat logs between Manning and ZJ to Boing Boing which were not published in the magazine piece. That log excerpt, which provides a little additional color about their relationship, and what was on Manning's mind, follows below.
(9:02:45 PM) ZJ: when I get a new computer I might install linux on this one
(9:03:07 PM) bradass87: military is all f'd up... contracts with closed source developers with incompatible software... drives me NUTS
(9:03:29 PM) ZJ: that is ridiculous, it's hard to ensure security when the source is unavailable
(9:03:53 PM) bradass87: yes, even worse its often lowest bidder...
(9:05:03 PM) bradass87: used to be the cream of the crop... now its outdated non-backward compatible suites of buggy software that were originally used for civilian purposes, then modified for military but not exactly thoroughly tested
(9:05:36 PM) bradass87: then they get contractors who dont know anything about computers to teach it...
(9:06:42 PM) bradass87: and its all OKAY, because we cant exactly complain out in the open because the software which bugs out is often times on machines which are stamped with big red SECRET stickers
(9:06:57 PM) ZJ: that's pretty lame
(9:07:12 PM) bradass87: it is, it is
(Photo: Courtesy of the Bradley Manning Support Network, via nymag.com)
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Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.