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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when gender-dissent got serious

 barfieldportraitMy book has a quiet backbeat of gender-dissent, separate from but not irrelevant to its years of conscientious objectors, mutinies and warrior writers. From the beginning, we had women dressing as men to fight, from the Revolution to the Civil War; we had women codebreakers and nurses during World War I and II, and an increasing number of women explicitly recruited starting in 1960, including later acclaimed peace veteran Ellen Barfield (above).

Still, when women started to claim their own right to be there, it made some  noise no one expected — especially in the 1990s, after the Tailhook scandal exposed what so many women had been enduring all along. I’ve realized that much of this important work is too tangential to be described in-depth in Ain’t Marching … so below is some of what I learned, in case it’s of use.

After Tailhook, feminist scholars and others committed to women’s full participation in the military, began looking more deeply at the misogyny underneath the new, gender-integrated All-Volunteer Force was still in full bloom in numerous ways. Navy Ships and airplanes were still painted with naked ladies, and chants still called weak recruits “pussy.” Carol Burke, a former civilian professor at Annapolis, reported hearing multiple strains of the one below, to the tune of “Candy-Man”:

Who can take a bicycle

Then take off the seat

Set his girlfriend on it

Ride her down a bumpy street. . .

[Chorus]

Who can take some jumper cables

Clamp them to her tits

Jump-start your car

And electrocute the bitch

[Chorus]

Who can take an icepick

Ram it through her ear

Ride her like a Harley

As you fuck her fromr: the rear…./span>

While that chant was an extreme example, the devaluing of women was still a staple of much military culture and training, even as they were recruited in increasing numbers (by 1996, women would constitute 13 percent of personnel, from 5 percent of Marines to 16 percent of the Air Force). Some was signaled indirectly, in what is sometimes termed “gender harassment” of women with whom they were ordered to work: “sabotage, foot-dragging, feigning ignorance, constant scrutiny, gossip and rumors, and indirect threats. This harassment targets women but is not sexual: often it cannot be traced to its source,” ii exemplifying the term “hostile environment” even as it was being documented and defined in the legal language of sexual harassment.

The resentments triggering such an environment were paired with a basic-training system rather famously designed to overcome any World-War-II attacks of conscience, increasingly linking sexuality to violence. “Recruits were brutalized, frustrated, and cajoled to the point of high tension,” ex-Marine Wayne Eisenhart recounted years later. “Only on occasions of violent outbursts did the drill instructor cease his endless litany of You dirty faggot and Can’t you hack it, little girls.” iii Another Vietnam veteran told psychologist Mark Baker: “Carrying a gun was like a permanent hard-on. It was a pure sexual trip every time you got to pull the trigger.” Below are some of the sources I consulted looking into this: feel free to join the conversation.iv

i Carol Burke, Camp All-American, Hanoi Jane, and the High-and-Tight: Gender, Folklore, and Changing Military Culture (Beacon Press, 2004).

ii Laura Miller, “Not Just Weapons of the Weak: Gender Harassment as a Form of Protest for Army Men.” Social Psychology Quarterly, March 1997, p. 33.

iii Helen Michalowski, “The Army Will Make a ‘Man’ Out of You.” In Pam McAllister, ed., Reweaving the Web of Life: Feminism and Nonviolence (New Society Press, 1982).

iv David Grossman, On Killing, op. cit.

Pi Day news: some rational writing to go w/the irrational number

AintMarchincoverbyAlexOK, that title’s a reach. But here goes:

 

these might be giants: report from Fort Meade

I went back to Fort Meade this week, more than two years after  Manning was first brought to court. Now in dispute during these last pre-trial motions before the court martial, now scheduled for June 3: those two-plus years.

If there’s not another delay, that means that Bradley Manning’s court-martial will begin almost exactly three years after he was first detained in Kuwait, on May 26, 2010. Please excuse the bold/italics: that’s  three years which already have felt plenty long in actual life — without imagining I’d spent them in military detention, much of it in a single cell without all my clothes.

All of this despite the fact that the Uniform Code of Military Justice includes a guarantee of “speedy trial” that must begin within 120 days of arrest. And much of last week’s proceedings were about that — whether all the delays were due to inevitable national-security issues, and whether the government is obligated to cooperate with the defense and share what it found in its long investigation. There were also some interesting rulings — including how much the trial will cover Manning’s motivations for his actions, something important when someone is  charged with “aiding the enemy.”

But I won’t write much about the hard news here: I’ve been hired by Boston Review to do that (yay!) so you’ll have to wait. In the meantime, check out summaries from Ed Pilkington at the Guardian, Julie Tate at the Washington Post, and Hari Sreenivasan of PBS’s Newshour  (who delivers his report in that worried middle-of-the-road tone we all know so well).

David-Coombs-attorney-for-0071You should definitely check out Scott Shane’s profile of David Coombs, seen at right exiting the Fort Meade courthouse.

When I decided what to title this post, Lt. Col. Coombs is one of the two people I meant. I never got a chance to see William Kunstler or Clarence Darrow at work, but I now feel I kind of know how that feels.

Shane’s coverage of the case itself is predictably bland. But he manages, if you look at it closely, to convey some of the slyness of the veteran advocate:

Mr. Coombs, 43, is deep into one of the most high-profile American military cases in recent years, leading an aggressive, if unorthodox, defense. In weeks of pretrial hearings, the tall, crew-cut lawyer, flanked by uniformed military lawyers who make up the rest of the defense team, has attacked the government’s case on every conceivable ground, even as he conceded that Private Manning was the WikiLeaks source.

Coombs, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, served 12 years in the Army before leaving active duty and opening a military-oriented defense practice in 2009 in Providence, R.I. He has worked, both in court and in a public speech last month, to frame Private Manning’s disclosure of documents not as a reckless act of national security vandalism but as a deed of conscience, intended to expose government misdeeds and defend the public’s right to know.

It was an honor to watch Coombs deliver his speedy-trial brief, in which he countered the government’s catalog of everything they’d been doing by enumerating the ways in which it could have acted with more alacrity, adding on every single week in which he saw government inaction “while Pfc. Manning remained in pre-trial detention.”

Each individual omission added up like layers of paint on a canvas, until Coombs closed by citing the Rule of Court-Martial 707(d):”The accused’s constitutional right to a speedy trial have been violated. And the sole remedy for such a speedy trial violation is dismissal [of the affected charges] with prejudice.”

The whole presentation led to a super-caffeinated rebuttal by the prosecutor, which told me that it was as brilliant as it had looked.

The other giant I met this week was someone I knew only from her posts at Firedoglake, without realizing who she was: Jesselyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project, who gives her take on the trial below.

jesselyn_radackWith all my attention around soldiers who dissent, I find I’m sorely ignorant of much of the history of civilian whistleblowing, and had forgotten about Radack in specific. And I’m not sure I ever knew her full story, as one of the few employees in John Ashcroft’s Justice Department who actively questioned its behavior in the aftermath of 9/11.  The photo is from the Brown alumni magazine around that time, when she refused to help interrogators corners in the questioning of John Walker Lindh.

Radack has been offering legal and logistical support to Manning’s defense, adding him to the Government Accountability Project’s Whistleblowers honor roll. I hope I can go to DC to meet with her and the rest of GAP, to explore what whistleblowing really means in the 21st century. (And maybe ask how she’s kept her  multiple sclerosis at bay, since with her it’s still the invisible kind).

One of the most fun, and humbling, things about this project is how often I come into contact with such giants. Though it has me listening to this band, so much that I had to include the video below. Tell me the lyrics to the song don’t get you hoping for a whistleblower of your own.

Iraq and a hard place

pc-1

All this Manning talk has distracted me from writing about this amazing mural, powered by the singular organization Warrior Writers. They’re poets, essayists, performers and visual artists of all stripes, mostly from what their director calls “veterans who’ve served since September 11.” Together with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program,  they produced this testimonial a half-mile away from where I live, entitled “Communion Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” It was funded in part by veterans’ health agencies who believed sort of what I do: that creating art is a key way to tapping the strength inside the trauma.

I was there for the opening on Veterans Day, when the commissioners and City Council folk celebrated the work of the artists and all the vets who helped them create this mural. You get to decide if dissent is involved, but to the extent that vets turn their own trauma into something that speaks truth, there’s no question it deserves our attention.

At the mural opening, I also had the privilege of meeting a newer member of Iraq Veterans Against War, a talented writer from Western Pennsylvania. And he gave me permission to post the poem he read that day, which you should read aloud to yourself: I think it even without the line breaks it sings.

Continue reading

Just read. Leon Panetta, there’s an epidemic on and your job to deal with it.

At Common Dreams, Annette Bonsignore asks the questionI hadn’t got around to: ” Will the Media Give Leon Panetta the Same Pass Provided to Robert Gates on the Military’s Rape Epidemic?” She lays out the challenge very well:

The media now has an opportunity to confront and question the next Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.  Will the media give him a pass too?  Will the media continue to ignore those in Congress that have been addressing the issue?  On June 9th Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) questioned Panetta about the rape and sexual assault crisis – but where was the media coverage?  Oh, that’s right the media frenzy over Representative Weiner’s “crisis” was blanketing the airwaves.  Panetta’s boiler plate “zero tolerance” policy response to Senator McCaskill needs to be questioned as well as the ongoing narrative that women are the only victims of sexual violence in the military.

I’m starting by sending you to her. Read it, then forward it to your Congresscritter and ‘cc our new SecDef.

A draft? part two: “send me to Iraq and not my mother.”

I’m strangled by multiple deadlines today. But needed to hail Dwayne Betts, writing at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic site:

Right now my moms is at an airport in Maryland waiting on a plane to send her to Germany, then to Kuwait, then to Iraq. She turns fifty years old on Thursday. At first, I thought she was an anomaly. I believed that there were no other 40+ year old women headed to Iraq.

“I was wrong. With my mother there are at least two other women in their forties. It is a distressing thing to get emails describing training drills that involve jumping out of humvees and handling assault rifles.
You grow up watching GI Joe and all of the war movies and war is a glamourous thing. Even people who die seem to die heroically, or at least as a part of someone’s else’s hero tale. The wars are always fought by the young. You never see the weary eyes of a man who knows too much blood and is much too honest after three shots of bourbon. And yet, the failure to see what I’m beginning to recognize as the reality of war is not the disturbing thing.
What’s disturbing is how the President and Vice-President continue to talk about the 90,000 troops to be returning home from Iraq between now and summer. Just two days ago the AP quotes Biden as saying the Iraq war hasn’t been worth its “horrible price.” It also mentions the 90,000 combat troops. My mother and her friends, the people in her unit, platoon or whatever slang they use laugh at those numbers – because they have inherited the stories of the men and women they are replacing.

Sgt. Leigh Hester, I hope you're still OK since the Army photographer got this picture at Ft. Riley.

He goes on to talk about how his mom and others basically joined out of poverty, and ends his post with: “In a way, I feel like a draft, at least, would send me to Iraq and not my mother. Would send my cousins instead of women with new born babies. Instead of what seems like a lot of single mothers” like Alexis Hutchinson, who Betts had just discussed.

While I still think calling for a draft isn’t really the answer, as my previous posts have noted, Betts’ testimony is important, and has more weight with me than either Charles Rangel or the others who’ve asked for conscription lately.  Read the whole thing — then bookmark the site, because Ta-Nehisi’s shop is one of the best even when its brilliant padrone’s not in the house.

Meanwhile, speaking of women in combat, Gulf War veteran Catherine Ross, in the Times this week, ripped to shreds that myth that there are no women outside the wire. As if anyone outside some Congressional suites ever really believed it.