I've just finished reading Chelsea Manning's book README.txt. Chelsea Manning is an especially well-known - indeed infamous - trans woman, best known for uploading hundreds of thousands of US classified military documents to Wikileaks, her main aim being to show that what the Western public was being told about the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was not what was really happening. She got into a lot of trouble for it. She is a villain to many and a hero to others (including Vivienne Westwood who is quoted on a sticker placed on the front cover of my copy; I thought she was a fashion designer rather than a military analyst, but I guess anyone's going to draw their own conclusions about Chelsea's life and actions according to their own lights).
Obviously, I read the book because, to me, the autobiography of any trans person is of especial interest. But it is a book of many themes.
She was brought up in out-of-the-way communities in Oklahoma, USA, and Wales, UK, by alcoholic parents. She struggled with that, with her sexuality (brought up as a boy, she was always attracted to boys when it was illegal in places like Oklahoma) and, later, with trying to live homeless until an aunt took her in. She struggled to make ends meet, despite working long hours. The military was offering bigger bucks than she could make in a civilian job, with a $20,000 dollar bonus to those who signed up immediately, which she did, rather blindsiding her aunt who suddenly lost her young relative to the tender mercies of a US Army training camp. Having been a computer geek, including bouts of hacking and trolling, she was posted to intelligence gathering roles (a bit of illegal stuff in one's past is rarely a bar to making a career in the military, after all).
The USA at the time had a "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy about gay people in the military. There are, she believes, a lot of gay people in the military, way more than anyone knows, or even they themselves know (which was even more the case at the time, thanks to the policy). We know people join up for reasons like hers, or so as to avoid a life in and out of police cells, or in order to man up, or in order to meet men... Being required to be covert about one's sexuality never made romantic encounters easy and one time she was raped by an officer whom she couldn't report because - if you've ever worked in any hierarchy you'll know - folks above you have the ability to wreck your career and reputation, and having to come out as gay would have flown in the face of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. She felt truly violated, not just physically but morally.
She wanted to make a good career and, although offered a great desk job in intelligence despite (or because of) her less than perfect record on hacking, drugtaking, and other things that might be morally and/or legally questionable, she felt that no-one who hadn't seen action could really hold their head up, so she turned the job down so as to be posted to Iraq. It's one of those forks in the road of life at which one makes a decision that seems reasonable at the time but which turns out to be a disaster.
Still doing intelligence-based work on the (rather vague) front line, she couldn't, as previously, get her superiors to see the shoddy security of many US military computer systems containing classified information; nor the logic and morality of keeping similar things classified when bad, but declassified and open to the press when it made the military or US policy look good. She was troubled by the fact that intelligence gathering (i.e. spying) on the local population was so intense that she felt she knew more about the lives of the locals than they themselves knew. Above all, though, she was tormented by the endless engagement errors when innocent bystanders were killed - thousands of them (the numbers are unknown) - and yet no-one was ever held to account because the international rules of war enable soldiers to make lethal mistakes that no civilian would ever get away with. People of doubtful politics, or just suspect, were caught and handed over the the Iraqi authorities ... and the allied militaries would wash their hands of them:
"We captured and detained these men [suspected of killing a US soldier of their unit], then gave them to the Iraqi government. We didn't keep track of people once we got them "off the battlefield", as the phrase went. Kill or capture and the problem is solved. Whether that was the right thing to do or not didn't matter to me then. With enough grief and adrenaline and fear, we can all become amoral, even malevolent."
That last sentence represents, in many ways, the main theme of this book, more than her being trans. One is reminded here, to a degree, of Hannah Arendt's seminal 1963 work The Banality of Evil.
So she leaked 720,000 classified documents, partly to disclose what was really happening in Iraq and Afghanistan, partly to show up the poor IT security she had attempted to warn of, and partly to attack the bizarre way of classifying secrecy. In the "honest, succinct" words of a military press affairs officer, she quotes:
"the classification system exists wholly in the interest of the U.S. government so if it's in the interest of public affairs to declassify something, we will. In other words, he seemed to say, the classification system doesn't exist to keep secrets safe, it exists to control the media. ... I began to consider whether the public deserved to have the same information that I did."
Oops! Nobody likes to be shown up and humiliated, and an organisation like an army, that is necessarily run by psycopaths, dealt with Manning's leaks in a uniquely brutal way: months of solitary confinement, including many weeks in an animal cage in the desert heat (see Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson in "the oven" in Bridge on the River Kwai for something similar), followed by Kafkaesque proceedings on legal matters all of which came under military law and therefore the military was prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer. (I wonder if it might've gone better for her stealing the documents and disclosing them once she'd left the military, but that would take a legal mind to explain.)
The day after her sentence in 2013 she formally came out as trans and a lot of legal shenanigans were required to get her hormones, treatment and dress appropriate to her gender. She feels that, whatever the authorities might have thought, her fellow inmates, once she was able to associate with them, seemed to have few problems interacting with her as a woman.
Another issue, unexpected until you've become famous or notorious, is that people supporting you or your cause may not necessarily have your exclusive interests at heart:
"all the groups expressing support for me clearly had their own agendas and views. My ability to tell my story had always been constrained by the limits of social convention; now it was not just limited but co-opted."
Yes, as Jon Ronson amply shows in his popular book The Psycopath Test, you can easily lose your own truth to others who use you to peddle their alternative realities. And, as an aside, anti-trans groups do love a bit of this, as do some self-appointed trans advocacy groups.
One gets the impression from this book that here is a young person (early 20s) learning an awful lot about the world way faster than most of us do. And doing a lot of her own legal donkey work. Somehow, she survived all the military threw at her and her suicide attempts, and her jail sentence of 35 years was commuted in 2017.
I make no moral judgments on any of this. Do you fight what seems wrong by doing what is also deemed wrong? Do the ends justify the means? Does formal justice represent natural justice? Is Chelsea Manning a pure-souled individual given her previous hacking, piracy and trolling? Are there ever clear right or wrong answers or best approaches to many life issues? This book is someone's own life experiences, impressions and justifications - an apologia would have been the term for this sort of autobiography once - though aspects of her story are subject to legal restrictions and, indeed, some paragraphs of the book have been blacked out. As a story of a trans woman coming to terms with who she is, it is in some ways a typical story yet also a unique one, as are they all, though this is more unique than any other I have read.
Finally, a word on style. I found the prose very readable. Never verbose or superfluous, she writes well and generally clearly. Sometimes she assumes the reader knows more about IT stuff than, well, I do, but such passages are few.
Two final quotations. One on her wanting to be like her sister:
"I didn't just want her room; I wanted to be like my sister: when I was five or six, I'd sneak in and try on her things. She played around with a cowgirl look in her early teens, and I still remember the boots and the belt buckles and the T-shirts with the horses and the frilly fringes that I'd try on. I loved her makeup station, with a mirror and light bulbs that changed color. I'd stare at myself for long stretches, seeing if I looked different with this lipstick, that foundation, this lighting. After I'd left a mess enough times, Casey installed a lock on her bedroom door. I still tried to pick the lock so I could play with her things."
I can relate to that, though I'd not call it playing! Here's when she first kissed a boy, ironically whilst doing the "boy stuff" that her father had insisted she needed to do when she'd asked him if she'd grow up like her sister:
"That was also the first year I kissed a boy. I'll call him Sid. Sid, a bicycle ride away, white-blond and tanned and pencil thin and obsessed with the spectacular pageantry of the World Wrestling Federation. We used to wrestle on a big foam mat at his house, with bungee cables he'd set up as the ring's ropes, pretending that we were pros. One day, while we were play-fighting, I gently moved in and kissed him - it wasn't premeditated, just a yearning impulse. He kissed me back. And then some other kid saw us. Once Sid realized we were being watched, he pushed me off. Get off me, you faggot. I couldn't stop weeping."
So, of course, the cat was out of the bag, with consequences at school and in family... (Mind you, wrestling has always been a grey area in terms of manliness - the costumes and attitude are are little, well, gay, right?)
My review is based on a first reading of the work. I would like to read it again. Would I recommend this book? For a tale of how a trans person comes to terms with their being transgender, yes. For insights into how governments and militaries work, certainly. For how intelligence gathering and computer hackers work, also. If you're into the moral maze, absolutely.
|Chelsea Manning 2022|