The madness of Bradley Manning

Bradley ManningOn the weekend the Guardian headlined an investigative report on the personal history of Bradley Manning. The question the Guardian raises as the imperative behind its ‘investigation’ is: ‘Why did the US army ignore warnings from officers that Manning was unstable?’ ‘Unstable’ apparently refers to Manning’s mental state before he was sent to Iraq and plugged himself into SIPRNet. The implication of the Guardian’s question seems to be that if the US military had weeded out this nutjob early enough, they would have saved themselves a whole lot of trouble. The Guardian’s reporting is frankly shoddy, poorly written, sensationalised and generally very strange, and for all its claims to be investigative, seems to contain a lot of information already publicly available.

Manning’s history is spottily told by the Guardian, and relies on odd bits of information, neighbourhood gossip, and so on. What is already known, despite the Guardian’s breathless tones, is that Manning’s parents divorced when he was thirteen and his mother was drinking heavily, for reasons that are unclear, but were most likely connected with her marriage and subsequent relocation to the US from her native Wales, and her husband’s frequent absences from home. Given that people generally don’t drink heavily and consistently when life is hunky dory, we can probably assume that life in the Manning household was unhappy, stressful and had been for a long time. After his parents divorce Manning moved with his mother, back to the country of her birth. At his new school in a new country Manning was friendless and badly bullied, or as the Guardian quaintly puts it, ‘teased’. He also began to understand that he was gay. At age seventeen, and having come out, Manning went back to the US to live with his father and his new wife and her son. A couple of years later, says the Guardian, Manning’s step-mother called the police saying Manning was ‘out of control’. For the next year Manning was homeless, either couch-surfing or living in his car. It was at this point that he began to think about joining the armed forces. He thought the army would be a route to university, a way of climbing out a hopeless situation.

‘He was far from typical soldier material,’ says the Guardian. ‘He was smart, gay, physically weak and politically astute.’ On the other hand one could say that Manning looks exactly like ‘soldier material’, like standard US army fodder, a poor white kid from a broken and unhappy home with an absent father and a dislocated mother drinking heavily to cope with her unhappiness. He was miserable, homeless, broke, lonely, and with zero prospects (in the way that only poor Americans can have no prospects). As Manning later said in his email conversation with the strange Adrian Lamo, ‘Events kept forcing me to figure out ways to survive … [I was] smart enough to know what’s going on, but helpless to do anything … no-one took any notice of me’.

But within a month of joining up Manning had been sent to the discharge unit. That is, he was bombing out of basic training and the army wanted him out. As he had in school Manning found himself being repeatedly bullied, only this time not by unsympathetic Welsh kids to whom an Oklahoman teenager was as weird as someone from outer space, but bullied by professionals, and bullied so badly that on several occasions, says the Guardian he ‘wet himself’, that is, involuntarily urinated out of fear.

Anyway, with the US military being short of cannon-fodder for its Iraq adventure, Manning was passed fit for active service in mid-2008, and posted to the US while waiting to be deployed to Iraq as an intelligence analyst. While back in the US Manning formed his first serious relationship, and found himself with a circle of friends, some of who moved in hacker circles. But in late 2009, the 21-year-old Manning was trucked off to Iraq, to Forward Operating Base Hammer. The Guardian says that FOB Hammer is located near the Iranian border. In fact, it’s 40 miles east of Baghdad, and 70 miles west of the border, out in the middle of the desert. To say that FOB Hammer was a shit-hole is probably to unfairly malign places of defecation. Hammer had an endemic culture of bullying. Everyone at FOB Hammer was terminally bored and for entertainment, soldiers downloaded porn, played video games and watched classified military footage on SIPRNet, including drone attacks and footage of civilian beings gunned down by Apaches. Passwords for SIPRNet were freely available to anyone who wanted one.

The Guardian through its crap report, written in the furtive tones of a neighbourhood gossip who claims to be doing a public service, draws a picture of Bradley Manning as an unpredictable young man with unspecified psychiatric problems, too ‘unstable’ to be in the military and prone to violent and irrational outbursts. Three weeks before his arrest and two weeks before he first contacted Adrian Lamo, the Guardian says that Manning allegedly punched a senior officer, a woman, in the face. No context is given for this behaviour (you have to work out for yourself the timeline) and without context it just becomes another incident that confirms Manning’s wacko nature. In fact all of Manning’s history, the context of his life, a life in which so many disastrous choices were made for him, is ignored by the Guardian, or treated as titillating information that confirms his ‘instability’. On the basis, it seems to me, of the same report that states that to be stable enough to get through US army basic training one needs to be skilled in high-grade bullying, and mentally distressed enough to think that downloading war porn is an OK way to pass the time.

So the answer to the Guardian’s non-question ‘Why did the US army ignore warnings from officers that Manning was unstable?’ is that Manning wasn’t ‘unstable’ at all in the sense that the Guardian article implies – but unable to cope with bullying so severe that he pissed himself, and drastically misjudged what being in the military would actually be like. Manning has a history of profound loss, of years of bullying wherever he turned, of feeling that he was let down by pretty much everyone who had ever been significant in his life, his parents, his lover, friends, schools, colleagues, the army and finally his country. Manning has been subject to all sorts of strange descriptions of his mental state, even from those sympathetic to his cause, and perhaps it is just too hard to understand what life must be like for him, what his life was like when he wiped those Lady GaGa CD’s and started downloading files from SIPRNet.

The publicity around Manning’s detention has generated some improvement in his conditions. A lot of people have shown a good deal of courage in standing up for Manning, speaking out when it would be very convenient not to. The Guardian’s latest report, shoddy, gossipy, mealy-mouthed, and about as investigative as Who Weekly, comes as something of a surprise from a newspaper that while not always free from tabloid prose and priorities has at least had the intelligence and ethical courage to publish the cables that Wikileaks released, and give them prominence and analysis that few other media outlets would be prepared to do. Why on earth they led their weekend edition with this transparently material is anybody’s guess. It doesn’t help Manning, doesn’t help anyone’s understanding of his case or the issues surrounding his actions, and in effect damns him with faint praise. It’s weird stuff, and whether someone just fell asleep at the wheel or whether something else is going on in the politics of the Guardian’s offices is unclear, but it’s not a good look.

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  1. Stephen, although the tone may have been gossipy as you wrote I guess the point of the weekend piece was to show how lax the security was for that information and how easy it was. It was all a piece trying to point out how the US army made the setting for the Wikileaks to happen and that Bradley Manning is just a scape goat for a system that was lax.

  2. Hi Scott, ta for posting doubly or otherwise. I think if the intent of the Guardian piece was to highlight lax US army security then the whole ‘Manning was a weirdo’ line could have easily been dropped. The gossipy tone was bad enough, but the mazy loose way that Manning’s life was summarised, the chaotic nature of the presentation of the material left a lot of room for ambiguity. The labelling of Manning as ‘unstable’ was particularly obnoxious I think. It’s sloppy, damns him with slender evidence, doesn’t do a lot for a clear understanding of his situation and is unfair to say the least.

  3. “Given that people generally don’t drink heavily and consistently when life is hunky dory”

    There is no such ‘given’. To suggest that people only succumb to problem drinking when their lives are not satisfying or full or complete or positive or happy is to completely misunderstand the causes of alcoholism. This young man’s mother might have been desperately unhappy, but that she drank consistently to excess could not be ascribed out of hand to one reason.

  4. Hi there. I don’t think I’m subscribing Manning’s mothers drinking to any one reason. Her drinking is her own business and none of mine. I wanted to give a more coherent background to Manning’s life than was given by the Guardian. People can drink for all kinds of reasons. However it’s not unusually found that excessive drinking and unhappiness go together. I was making the point that it’s highly likely that Manning has had a deeply unhappy life, and is not just mysteriously and wackily ‘unstable’, but has a developmental past that doesn’t look very positive.

  5. Thanks for this Stephen, I too was ta
    ken aback by finding this in the Guardian. I thought perhaps the London CIA station chief had nipped into the newspaper’s office and penned it himself. Its line of reasoning seemed to be that only someone who was mentally disturbed would do what he did, whereas I submit that the reverse is true.

  6. Without being too paranoid it could simply be part of a tactic to discourage future whistleblowers. Those who inhabit the loci of power may be thinking to themselves that they can’t really go after Assange because of the bright glare of publicity and more importantly the ‘insurance’ file he has strategically made available. The second best option is to destroy the purported whistleblower in a message to anyone thinking that the public discourse would be improved by transparency of information.

    1. I think that to be any kind of whistleblower, whether you’re pulling the plug on military secrecy or exposing corporate cultures of sexual harrassment is to be assured of media demonising. It’s always the option that guarantees further ‘in depth’ pieces. Rather than investigate the culture of military bullying, or a culture that condones sexual violence, etc its much more exciting to ‘investigate’ the whistleblowers past, find a few people who can say he was crazy or she was promiscuous and so on. It’s also less complicated for simple media brains, and means less thought has to be directed toward structural problems.

      1. Stephen, I reservedly agree with your above comments. I think it depends on whether the whistleblower fits into an appropriate narrative frame. If s/he does then they are extended some degree of protection, if they do not then they are pilloried. To complicate matters further they may also drift in and out of the frame depending on the PR skills of those who have most to lose by the exposure of the information revealed by the whistleblower.
        What fascinates me about this specific case is the complete polarisation of both official and media treatment of Assange and Manning. It is almost as if there is a collective binary channeling going on. Assange is seen as the paragon by those in favour of transparency and frustratingly off-limits (so far) to those who would like to visit their wrath upon him while Manning, at various points during his unending incarceration, has been treated little better than the unfortunate souls who were the recipients of Coalition hospitality at Abu Ghraib. My impression was (and still is) that very little support was publicly extended by Assange’s defenders. Have they judged him guilty of treason prior to trial? Is he simply less sympathetic from a media perspective?

        1. There was discussion at OL when Assange was arrested, and what became obvious was how difficult it was to introduce any kind of nuance into the debate, how polarised it was. It became very difficult to separate out the sexual assault allegations from the WikiLeaks, as though many people found it difficult to comprehend that Assange could have done a courageous thing leaking the cables, and also perhaps be guilty of sexual assault. And that these were two separate things. The media conglomerates don’t deal in nuance of any sort, but in cartoonish portraits and definitions of good and evil. It keeps the world simple, ostensibly controllable and so on. Your ‘binary channelling’ image is a very good one I think.

          1. I think you are right Stephen re binary viewpoints being endemic; you’ve identified another in how Assange is perceived. The difference between representations of Assange and Bradley & Assange is that Assange may be capable of having undertaken both acts. One does not exclude the other. He can be courageous AND act in a sexually abhorrent way. Manning & Assange is different. Manning appears to be taking all the downside whilst Assange benefits from the upside. Why should this be the case? Is it the fact that Manning was a soldier or that his actions may fit within the frame of illegality which makes him less worthy of support? Or was it the misery that was his early childhood? Or perhaps Assange may be seen to be exotic by the US media which (due to its size) often creates momentum behind a narrative. Manning is perhaps seen to be ordinary or even representative of an unpleasant reality.
            National media love to ignore certain uncomfortable issues, for Australians its the concentration of media in one proprietor’s hands and Aborignies (to name but two issues) for the Americans it seems to be gun control and how the lack of universal insurance seems to almost enslave the working age population – no job, no health.

  7. You know, having temporarily blanked on who Bradley Manning *was*, it was quite interesting to read this article and then google it. Because frankly, the background you’ve outlined, and which apparently the Guardian wanted to dial up to extremes, sounds like something that could be used to explain someone having commmitted a mass murder.

    I’m amazed that people care enough to malign someone who leaked documents. Who, outside the military intelligence who have fucked up again, gives a flying monkey’s fuck?

    1. Well I guess if Manning was potentially a mass murderer that could make him a perfect fit for the military. He reminds me more of Lynddie England actually (who?) who carried the can for Abu Ghraib, and was an uneducated woman in a very crap job, where again bullying was rife, and when she joined the military and found herself in Abu Ghraib desperately needed to find a way to survive a culture where ‘bullying’ seems much to inadequate a word to describe the violent and toxic atmosphere. There are significant differences in what Manning and England believed and so on, but still poor white kids who have grown to adulthood in very difficult circumstances, have found themselves doing all kinds of bizarre and repugnant things to survive.

  8. to survive in Iraq I meant to say. And there have been plenty of poor black kids too in the same situation, but both Manning and England seem to have been shaped by similar forces.

  9. Maybe the lesson to learn from the way the US chooses to explain and blame their recruits for doing things they don’t like, is that maybe they should consider recruiting different people, different ways? Or perhaps put less terrible stresses on them?

    Although I’m a little hesitant that you appear to have described Manning’s leaking of documents as repugnant? I concur with the general sentiment…

    Thanks for the reminder, also. Taking a research program for my Masters seems to have been a mistake, it’s destroyed my capacity to think about anything else.

    1. Previous comment to me.

      ‘There are significant differences in what Manning and England believed and so on, but still poor white kids who have grown to adulthood in very difficult circumstances, have found themselves doing all kinds of bizarre and repugnant things to survive.’

      I assume it was unintentional?

      1. I think Stephen may be referring to matters other than the leaking of documents. Perhaps the actions of England at Abu Ghraib or the actions of either or both people prior to their ‘infamous’ acts?

          1. The comments aren’t coming to my email, so I only just saw this discussion. Perhaps I expressed myself clumsily, but
            I assumed the sense of what I was saying would have been clear from the general context of the blog. I was of course referring to Abu Ghraib and so on and so forth.

  10. It’s the same old story the demonising of the working class which seems to be more prevalent than ever. Assange has the cachet of being educated and middle-class whilst poor Manning is Welsh, working class and gay. Not much going for him.

  11. re NB Schifrin’s comment earlier,the media representations of
    Assange and Manning differ somewhat because Assange has more celebrity interest than Manning. Manning has none, and the media has generally given him little coverage until recently except when he can be sexed up a bit as ‘unstable’. The working class seems to have become something of an invisible entity these days, at least in its representations. It’s kind of uncool or distasteful to talk of class politics.

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