The day I finally met Chelsea Manning

chelsea, me, Rache

Chelsea Manning at the Annenberg School of Journalism, Philadelphia, PA., talking to me (messy hair, leather jacket) and my wife. Photo by Kyle Cassidy

Updated to add this link, in which Chelsea Manning spoke more clearly about her case than she felt able to do at Penn. (Forgive the deadname in Atlantic’s title; it was before she came  out to the world as the assured young woman you see above.

The photo above was taken on November 29, 2017, right after Manning spoke to about 400 students at the University of Pennsylvania, which treated her far better than Harvard had. That figure in the leather coat  is me, my hair stressed by the windy day. And in that photo, by the celebrated Kyle Cassidy, the shadows under her eyes tell more truths than she could or did that night.

I showed up hoping to live-blog/tweet it, and to ask if I could share what part of her story ends up in my book. The live-blogging was kind of foiled by the unsure wireless at Penn, and by having to wait in line at a microphone to ask her a question in public.

I’m happy that the event was covered by WHYY, which provides a far more exuberant photo, conveying how happy she was to be there. For exact words said, click the link: what I provide is more a set of musings, and answers to questions some of you suggested.

The event was at Annenberg Center Live, at Penn’s journalism school. As I sat waiting, I thought of seeing her in that Fort Meade courtroom five years ago, when we all knew her as Bradley Manning but many, including me, suspected she was transgender. Now her trans identity is one of the first things most people know about her, I thought. Especially those following @Xychelsea on Twitter.

Instead of a journalist, she was on stage with Gabriella Coleman, a professor at McGill in a field I didn’t know existed: Scientific and Technological Literacy. (One of the fields thats emerged with the STEM generation, I was told by a student who  didn’t know how old that made me feel.)

Most of those in the audience had likely been in their teens when Manning was in basic training. They howled in celebration when Manning and Coleman took the stage, Manning wearing shorts, lace tights and Doc Martins.

Coleman started by telling stories about calls she’d get from Manning when she was at Leavenworth; Manning’s work is already included in Coleman’s, work which includes the books The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking and The Many Faces of Anonymous

That period when they met was when Manning was starting to be able to tell her own story –  200,000 letters from supporters were streaming into Leavenworth, and Manning was tweeting back and writing op-eds with a very patient editor at Guardian UK. “It all had to happen in the U.S. mail,”  Manning said. She would type her drafts, get them in the mail and then make a collect call to the Guardian and dictate the article, to get it into the queue. “Op-ed is a very difficult form in journalism,” Coleman pointed out.
They talked about some of the op-eds, including one for the New York Times about the dangers of big data. This part of the conversation was the most substantive, discussing the way the data we provide for online convenience enters algorithms that can impact our lives in unforeseen ways.  “In Iraq, I was working with comparatively primitive software,” Manning said. “And my algorithm killed people.” Coleman mentioned next the video released by Wikileaks as Collateral Murder,  the helicopter-cam video of a 2007 airstrike in Iraq that killed two Reuters journalists. “I showed the video to one of my classes at New York University,” she said. “And I can tell you that they felt betrayed. Why hadn’t they seen anything like this? Why didn’t they know what was happening in Iraq?”
“That’s why I felt—” Manning started and then stopped. More slowly, she added that “The American people deserved to know the unvarnished truth about the war.” Her reluctance to go into detail about her actions, Manning added, was because so many details of her case are still classified – or re-classified. “How can they do that?” Coleman piped up to mention the booming U.S. intelligence establishment, with dozens of agencies claiming sole right to more and more data.
Coleman asked what crossover Manning saw between two of Manning’s most ardent constituencies: the activist/privacy/hacker community, and those fighting for transgender rights. “So many communities,” said Manning. “If you’re trans, or brown or queer, you’re making yourself a target to the people in power.” Not dissimilar, she added, to her time in Leavenworth: “Everybody in prison faces challenges like that — and we have to lean on each other when it gets hard. It’s a real community…Communities know what’s going on, what has to change.”
Then came the “Jordan Peterson conversation,” for which I will defer to Bobby Allyn’s WHYY piece:

Manning became most animated when Coleman asked about the brouhaha that erupted over a Canadian professor’s refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns, saying it impinged on his free-speech rights.

“It’s all about him, isn’t it?” said Manning to audience laughter. She then shifted to a sterner tone.

“We are who we say we are. It’s as simple as that. This isn’t a free-speech issue. It’s a dignity issue. It doesn’t hurt him, just use it,” she said. “It’s hurtful to be on the other end of that and not be acknowledged or validated.”

See Allyn’s article for most of the Q&A, including Manning’s elegant summary of Democratic security policy:“A ‘D’ is more likely to say, ‘We need more trans drone pilots.’ ” But I wanted to talk about my own question  which really belonged to Desert Storm veteran Scott Lee, who suggested it on AM’s Facebook page.
I was one of the last to get the mike, and I first said: “It’s good to see you. The last time was at Fort Meade, during your court-martial.” The expression that crossed her face was a harder version of the photo at the top of this post. She didn’t like being reminded of that time, though her eloquence when she did get to address the court displayed far better than she’d done that night.

Then I told her that many veterans look up to her, and my question was from one of them ‘When he was in the military, he said, there were classes in what was and what not a lawful order. His question: When does one cross the line to become a whistleblower?”

This was both a substantive question and a softball: an opportunity to put her actions in context, the way she did at Fort Meade. Instead, Manning said that it was complex, that every order is technically a legal order because it comes from someone above you in the chain of command — and as for actions that violate international law, it’s legal if the Pentagon says it is. Her tone was flat, a cross between a tired activist or a paralegal.

I don’t know what I’d expected to hear, but it wasn’t that. I guess part of me was remembering her account, at Fort Meade, of seeing one of her intelligence “products” used to round up and detain people who had done nothing but petition their local authorities.That changed how she looked at the data she was collecting; it must have rendered repulsive the next order to produce more data. But Manning wasn’t comfortable offering details of her work in Iraq, perhaps fearing they were now classified.

After the talk, Manning actually sat on the stage to talk to people, which gave me a chance to ask my other questions. I told her about Ain’t Marchin (not by title), and asked if she had thoughts about Reality Winner or Edward Snowden. “Nothing to say about other cases!” she said.”I can barely talk about my own.”

Then came the request portion. “I’m like other journalists who’ve been trying to write about you before you started telling your own story.” I told her the book will be published, but I was hoping to pass the sections about her by someone who could ensure it was accurate. (This is something I did with Heather Lea Linebaugh, and with the brother of Vietnam veteran Jeff Sharlet.) She nodded, and took down my information (including the URL for this page). Her assistant, her people, are supposed to get in touch.

At this point my wife, the poet/computer geek Rachel Rawlings, had joined us; it turned out that Manning’s supporting herself at a job like Rachel’s, and the two of them commiserated about life as a system administrator. She also told both of us that it’s only in the past few months that she’s come down to earth and really started to process what she has been through, now that the post-release elation was fading. That explains the 1000-yard stare: telling her story, even in this abbreviated form, must be as re-traumatizing as much as it is healing. Not to mention the documentary she’s working on, XYCHELSEA, which comes out next year.

After we all went our separate ways, Manning had 2 afterparties – one at a local bistro and one at the Haktory, a hackers’ workspace.  The latter sounds perfect, because being Chelsea Manning sounds like hard work.

 

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Groundhog Day for women in the military?

When anyone asks me how I got started with all this, I invariably mention CCCO and the G.I. Rights Hotline in the 1990s. But it’s not often that I wake up and feel such a strong echo of those years, as I did yesterday upon news of sexual assault of recruits at Fort Benning.

Back then, the Department of Defense had no Victim Advocates, no admiral serving as a sexual-assault response coordinator. As I write this, I’m hoping to learn more about the Pandora’s box opened by that one brave recruit who reported her abuse and led to the discovery of still more.

But excuse me if I feel flashed back to the old days, some of which appears below in more outtakes from Da Book.

In December 1991, Paula Coughlin was pumped when she got to Las Vegas for the Tailhook Convention. The weather, 80 degrees with no humidity, felt a relief from the near-tropical Maryland coast where she served as a rear-admiral’s right hand at Patuxent Air Force Base. A qualified airman with eight years in the Navy, Coughlin had long looked forward to Tailhook, a prestigious if famously boozy semiannual event. She changed quickly and headed for the third floor, where her friends were waiting.

But no one had told her, she told the Washington Post six months later, about the gauntlet:

When Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin first spotted them – a youthful, clean-cut bunch of guys lounging in a third-floor hallway of the Las Vegas Hilton – it never crossed her mind that she should be afraid. After all, she recalls thinking, these were Navy and Marine pilots. Pilots just like her.

But Coughlin, a helicopter pilot and admiral’s aide, was quickly enveloped by terror. Grabbed from behind and propelled down the hallway to jeers of “admiral’s aide, admiral’s aide,” Coughlin was repeatedly pawed and molested. One man grabbed her breasts, another tried to remove her panties.

She bit down, hard, on the forearm of one of her attackers, but still the men kept coming….. “Help me,” she said to another man who seemed to be walking away. He turned and grabbed her breasts.i

After Coughlin, the daughter of a World War II aviator who’d joined ROTC as a college sophomore in 1984, told her superiors what had happened, 25 women also revealed similar assaults at the convention and by fliers attending. Six months after Navy investigators, not excluding her own boss, failed to take decisive action, she held a press conference: by the end of that week Navy Secretary Lawrence Garrett had resigned, taking responsibility for “the leadership failure which allowed the egregious conduct.” “Investigators from two separate Navy agencies had been stymied by a wall of silence put up by pilots and their commanders,” wrote Eric Schmitt at the New York Times, “but the agencies had each made their own fumbles. The Naval Investigative Service omitted important documents from its report; the Naval Inspector General’s office failed to put its chief investigator on the case.”

That has left the Defense Department Inspector General’s office, a larger agency with subpoena powers, to gather up thousands of pages of Navy interviews and try to make sense of them. That could take two or three months, and lawmakers are exasperated. “We now have investigators investigating investigators,” said Senator Sam Nunn, the Georgia Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee is venting its frustration by holding up more than 4,500 Navy and Marine Corps promotions until the officers are cleared of any involvement in the scandal.ii

Schmitt knew that the prospect of delaying promotions, interrupting normal military business, for a question of misconduct toward women was unprecedented, and created enormous backlash. Some pointed out that Tailhook, in particular, was a notorious bacchanal, and that Coughlin had therefore “knew what she was getting into” and now had no cause to complain.

Still others, not for the last time, chose this as the moment to question women’s inclusion in the armed forces to begin with. James Webb’s 1979 “Why Women Can’t Fight” was resurrected, and GI’s howled at now-mandatory sexual harassment trainings. Such abuse, they added, was different than women being molested by the enemy, as two POWS had been during the recent war (a fact unveiled during congressional inquiries in the aftermath of Tailhook).

Then, Major Rhonda Cornum told reporters later, her “mission focus” had completely shifted to staying alive.iii That assault hadn’t been made public for multiple reasons; when it was, it was seized by the Elaine Donnelly crowd as yet another reason women didn’t belong in the military. But the truer challenge to established order came not from some random Iraqi, but from the domino effect of multiple reports like Coughlin’s that would reach critical mass by the end of the decade.

When the call came from ABC News, Kathleen Gilberd sat back: This wasn’t a distressed soldier calling the Military Law Task Force, or even a vet like Margarethe Cammermeyer. Then almost immediately she sat up straight again. “Aberdeen Proving Ground? Yeah, basic training. These trainees are usually only 18.” She listened, swallowing hard. ‘”How many are saying they were raped?”

Gilberd was by then well known for her brilliant advocacy for military personnel’ . Bridget Wilson, a former Navy captain and full-time attorney in San Diego, told me that Gilberd’s legal strategies had often “set the bar, especially during the AIDS crisis.”iv In 1992, Gilberd and MLTF had initiated a lawsuit when the Pentagon instituted mandatory AIDS testing in the early 1990s. In their mission to keep the information confidential, Gilberd told the Associated Press: “The rights of people in the military need to be protected against a system which is both institutionally and informally discriminatory.” v

And as the gender wars unfurled, Gilberd became a national expert on dealing with women who reported sexual assault as well as discrimination. That phone call in 1996 was about a rape scandal at Aberdeen Proving Ground, described at the time by Washington Post reporter Jackie Spinner:

From the first allegations of rape late last year to the acknowledgment by the Army that something had indeed gone terribly wrong. To the filing of criminal charges against 11 sergeants and one captain. To the further acknowledgment that there were problems Army-wide. To the national hot line set up that recorded 1,288 complaints of abuse in its seven months in operation, 353 of which resulted in criminal investigations. To, most of all, the trial this spring of Delmar Simpson, an Aberdeen drill sergeant who was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for raping six female soldiers under his command.vi

Those six young women, whose behavior contained all the paradoxes of eighteen-year-olds but who knew that you weren’t “supposed” to complain about your sergeants, also knew five years after Tailhook that they could. They knew partly because of Paula Coughlin and the other 20 women who’d refused to let it go after Tailhook. They’d seen, as kids, the 1995 TV-movie made about the case, and the ongoing reports about the lawsuits Coughlin and her co-plaintiffs won against the Tailhook Association and Hilton Hotels, charging that their safety had been endangered. They might even have heard of the landmark study out of the Minnesota VA, in which nearly a third reported some level of abuse.

After all these years, “women in the military” was as fiercely contested an issue as ever – but now, after 6000 women served in the Gulf, female trainees like those at Aberdeen were seen as essential by both sides, and after Coughlin their charges more likely to be taken seriously. Thousands more women came forward, of every rank and branch of service, giving testimony to their members of Congress, reporters (as did Dorothy Hanson, the WAC mentioned in Chapter Seven) or to their local VA hospital, some of which were developing treatment programs for rape survivors. By 1998, the volume would spur a Department of Defense Task Force headed by General Evelyn Foote, another former WAC who told me, years later, that sexual harassment and abuse had long been endemic.

Foote’s participation in the debate placed the issue as one of “readiness,” a move away from dissent welcomed by advocates pressing press for the final lifting of all restrictions on women in combat.Similar arguments bolstered hopes for gay personnel, who over the decade secured victories in the courts and in the establishment of nonpartisan research and advocacy groups that recorded the costs of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It would take a few more decades for all this energy to be translated into change, and military gender issues would remain a trope of partisan politics.

“History isn’t repeating itself. It isn’t even rhyming,” I tweeted yesterday. “It’s condensing into a poisonous fog.”

A fog that mostly doesn’t belong in Ain’t Marching. But maybe it’s the book after this one?

VIDEO: Millennials and conscience

Some video reminders why this book has to exist. A simple question, posed 6 years ago by a respected journalist to an author, was already being answered Chelsea Manning, soon to be echoed by the voices of the whistleblowers above.

I discovered the first as I was reshaping – for the last time, I hope! — my World War I chapter, featuring the iconic conscientious objector Evan Thomas. His great-niece Louisa wrote a book about her family, and was interviewed by Jon Meacham below:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?300240-1/conscience

Watching this six years later, I was struck first by how much Thomas resembles her uncle. Then, after an engaging discussion of conscience, war and social responsibility, Meacham asks Thomas “Why does your generation not engage in this kind of dissent?” Meacham asks this despite knowing about then-Private Manning, who at that very moment was in the same prison where Evan Thomas had been tortured. (In that case, Meacham was taking the government’s side.)

Thomas’ response ignores contemporary soldier-dissenters, telling Meacham “Maybe it’s because we aren’t being forced to go to war” and suggesting that the Shark Tank crowd comprised her generation of rebels. But just as I was listening to that exchange, in my Twitter feed gave us Lisa Ling, one of those who stepped forward in Sonia Kennebuck’s documentary NATIONAL BIRD.

I can’t embed the video, but you should click on the link and watch it. Shaming that 2011 Meacham-Thomas exchange, Ling uses the phrase “poverty draft,” which I’m still astonished is not more common. As she describes her path from aspiring nurse to anguished drone operator, you can almost hear the voices of Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh,both of whom honored me with interviews for Ain’t Marching.

When I’ve thought I should drop this whole project, I remember their faces and voices.

 

Should Reality Winner be spending this holiday in federal prison?

I need to learn and write more about this newest target of the Espionage Act, but for today I’m boosting the signal from Courage to Resist, as ever the first to publicly support a dissenting servicemember. The link above also has a petition, urging that charges be dropped.  (Full disclosure: the latter organization is also a supporter of this book via Kickstarter.)

 

WHAT DOES INDEPENDENCE REALLY MEAN TO AMERICANS TODAY? WHAT IS THE MEANING OF FREEDOM?

By Courage to Resist

This 4th of July millions of Americans will be barbecuing, drinking beers and celebrating independence from tyranny. But one young American will not be enjoying her freedom. This young woman sits behind bars for allegedly acting upon her own commitment to stand up for a government free from tyranny.

Reality Leigh Winner is an Air Force veteran and military contractor who has been arrested for allegedly leaking an NSA document to news media. The classified document in question details Russian cyberattacks against a voting machine software company and more than 100 elected officials. This is the most detailed information that has still yet to reach the American public regarding the government’s investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.

Charged under the Espionage Act, which some argue does not sufficiently address needed whistleblower and First Amendment protections, Ms. Winner is now the first criminal leak case of the Trump era. With the White House declaring less than two months ago an imminent crackdown on those who leak classified information, many are concerned that Ms. Winner is a sitting duck in this politically-motivated shooting range. “Espionage Act charges carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison, although conventional leak cases have typically resulted in prison terms of one to three years.”

Held without bail in federal prison since early June, Ms. Winner made her first court appearance this past week for a bond hearing and her court date has now been set for October 23rd. When asked by local news media of the status of his defense strategy Mr. Titus Nichols stated, “At this stage the only thing we have (evidence) is a press release from the deputy attorney general and an application for a search warrant. In all my time as a prosecutor, that’s never been sufficient to either try a case or to even prepare for a case.”

While addressing the dubious political motivations for the aggressive prosecution of Ms. Winner her lawyer stated “My client has no criminal history. She’s a veteran. She served the Air Force for six years but now she’s been pulled into this political windstorm where there’s a much larger debate going on that this administration is choosing not to focus on. Instead of focusing on the question of was Russia involved in interfering with the election, now we’re focusing on the extent of punishment for this low-level government employee.”

A recent video of incarcerated Ms. Winner shows her making use of the prison grounds to practice the yoga poses crow, full wheel and headstand. These are all exercises which can assist one’s focus and gaining a different perspective while managing chaos, fear or inflexibility.

While celebrating our independence this July 4th, let’s also take the time to practice focus and courage. We can ask ourselves what would I do to defend or gain freedom for myself or others? And how can I support and defend those who may seek to do the same?

Reality Leigh Winner (right) with her mother Billie Winner-Davis.

For Reality Winner’s case, she needs widespread, transpartisan public support. Please share this article on social media, or post a photo of yourself with a “I Stand with Reality” sign.

this is joe from gainesville

peacewarhaldOn a Joe Haldeman kick, for reasons perhaps obvious to some of you.

After all, there’s that subtitle on my book, the next stop on my introduction exploration:

From the French and Indian War to the Forever War.

That section of the title has been a shape-shifter. When I first proposed it in 2007 it was “From George Washington to John Murtha,” the latter a tribute to the Pennsylvania congressman and Vietnam veteran who’d just made news by declaring the Iraq war “unsustainable.” Then, it became “From the Boston Massacre to Bradley Manning,” before the latter came out as Chelsea. And there was even a brief period when I replaced Manning with Bowe Bergdahl, who’d spent years as a prisoner of the Taliban after deserting his post in Afghanistan for a range of muddled reasons. But all of those names would date the book before it even came out.

Thus this almost-haiku line, starting with the war we all learned about in school and ending with a phrase coined by another Vietnam veteran and science-fiction writer, Joe Haldeman, and since applied to the current (?) Middle East adventure.

After writing the above, I went looking to see whether the author of the 1974 Forever War was even still alive, and what he’d said about how his weirdly prescient novel had mapped out some of the future. I ended up intherquite the rabbit hole.

He lives in Gainesville, somewhere near our friends and heroes Scott Camil and Camilo Mejia. No one seems to have assembled them, though.Nor have they brought them together with Dexter Filkins, author of that other Forever War. (Ideas for my book launch in FL?)

In this NPR interview ,  Haldeman talks to veterans of many wars about PTSD and how war changes you; in the wonderfully named VICE blog All Fronts,   he contemplates what technologies like 3-D printing may exacerbate our current forever war.

Forever_War_1_Cover-A-MARVANO-600x910Meanwhile, I learn I need to ask my local bestie comic-book shop whether they have this series, now reissued in English.

 

storytelling as dissent

youngblood-9781501105746_hrYesterday’s War Horse post only spotlit one small share of the vast number of veteran writers and artists, like the one pictured,  charting the forever war. They’re musicians, they’re poets holding incredible slams, they’re winning Pulitzers and National Book Awards.

The current bounty has me thinking about how the presence of such artists forms an arc throughout the history we’re charting — one that likely starts with Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Bierce, continues with e.e. cummings and Lewis Milestone and and busts out after World War II as Randall Jarrell, Joseph Heller, John Huston — until Vietnam givesi us Bill Erhart, Tim O’Brien and so many others (now on my cutting-room floor). If I include journalists and filmmakers to the mix, it becomes a cacophony.

Why the increase? And does the plentitude of stories just release tension, or begin the process of creating dissent as personnel know they’re not alone?

I don’t know if these questions are for trauma studies,military history or English class. But I do think they’re worth tracing. And maybe we can send today’s veteran stars a questionnaire, to find out if Bierce and Jarrell really do whisper in today’s texts.

privateperrypoe

48 years ago today, a match was struck that helped burn down the Vietnam War.

At least one can make that argument: certainly the war crimes of March 16, 1968 in the village of Son My/My Lai spurred more investigation and controversy than the almost-daily similar incidents more recently covered by Nick Turse in his magisterial Kill Anything That Moves It certainly shook the world of the ‘family’ of vets included in my Vietnam chapter.Their voices, as with the massacre’s impact on our culture,  so strong that my editor just asked me: “Is My Lai the fulcrum of that chapter?”

book-pinkvilleBut for today’s anniversary I wanted to call attention to a different book: The Witness from Pinkville, published today – written by someone who was only 11 when his family was  slaughtered. There are only 1,000 copies of the book in English, and only available at the memorial site established for the events; the author, Pham Thi Cong, is head of the Son My  vestige site. (Image above is from VietnamNet, which bills itself as the first English-language online newspaper in Vietnam.)

Time to contact my VVAW friends, and/or see if there’s any other way to get the book. The fact that he’s only 5 years older than me is heartbreaking.

Cong said the 248-page book recalled the events in the village (now in Tinh Khe Commune) nearly half a century ago….[He] said the massacre was the worst tragedy that he witnessed at the age of 11, when his mother and six brothers were killed by American soldiers in their house. He was seriously injured but was eventually saved by his father.

American soldiers killed 504 unarmed civilians in the massacre.

“I lost my father in 1970 and became homeless and an orphan,” Cong said.