Thursday, 8 December 2022

I review Chelsea Manning's memoir

 I've just finished reading Chelsea Manning's book README.txt. Chelsea Manning is an especially famous - 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, the latter including Vivienne Westwood who is quoted on a sticker placed on the front cover of my copy ("In my mind, Chelsea Manning is the greatest hero that ever lived"); I thought Westwood was a punky fashion designer rather than a military analyst, but I guess anyone's going to draw their own conclusions about Manning'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 this is a book of many themes.

She recounts being 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 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 who indulged in bouts of hacking, piracy, trolling and doxxing, 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 to explain the rape 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 still couldn't, as happened 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 some things classified purely on the grounds that they were bad for public relations, 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 knew about themselves. Above all, though, she became 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 to 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 her 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 also reminded, to a degree, of Hannah Arendt's seminal 1963 work The Banality of Evil, which offers explanations on how ordinary people can do monstrous things simply through the honest intention of doing their job well that blinkers them to how others just like them are severely affected.

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 stuffed in "the oven" in Bridge on the River Kwai for something similar). Her treatment was condemned by the UN and human rights groups. There followed Kafkaesque proceedings on legal matters all of which came under military law and therefore the military was policeman, 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."

As Jon Ronson 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, to the extent of being able to advise other prisoners (like a sort of trans Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption). Somehow, she survived all the military threw at her and her suicide attempts, and her jail sentence of 35 years was commuted by the president in 2017. 

The book makes it hard to consider the nature of morality, of right and wrong, in any dispassionate way. Do you, as an individual or a group or a nation, 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, her part in military thuggery, occupation and spying? Is she hero, villain, or victim of circumstance? If villain, is she redeemed now? Are there ever clear right or wrong answers or best approaches to many life issues? It's an uncomfortable read. The trans community needs to consider how it benefits and loses by her life and actions. This book presents 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, presumably from having had to produce so many succinct reports in her job. Sometimes she is almost poetic in her descriptions of places or sensations. She does assume 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

Sue x


  1. Can I start with Shakespeare's "nothing is good or evil: only thinking makes it so"? If nothing else, because you can twist many horrible, inhuman acts to justify dealing with and enemy. I am not saying this is right, but that it happens.

    Fear is a powerful motivator in short bursts. It certainly sells newspapers and lets a certain type of politician rise through the ranks. Neither of the former end well if you look at history. It always reminds me of the Emergency Broadcast speech in V for Vendetta.

    On listening to people who've worked in the military and in IT, it seems there was an approach of "locking in" known configurations, so you know that with something was deployed or interacted with, that it's behaviour and outcomes were fully understood. At least, so I was told. Cue comments about Windows 2000 still in use a decade or of service and other examples. I believe the UK military had spoken about having their own version of Linux that they'd use instead. However, I wonder if the ever narrowing gap between security fixes and security exploits changed their views on not updating?

    I'm not surprised by folk behind able to penetrate the security and exploit things. I'm slightly more surprised it doesn't happen more often.

    Thanks for the review. The book sounds fascinating.

    1. Thanks for your very useful comments, Lynn. I've actually made some small additions to my post in the light of them. Your comment that penetrating security is unsurprising is certainly worrying, although that is a strong implication in the book. Anyway, here's a book for your Christmas stocking. Sue xx

    2. In honesty, the conversations I listened to were a long time ago. I hope things have moved on since.

  2. Good review. I'll add it to my "to read" list. Specifically "list" not "pile". My to read "pile" is already two of them and both quite high. So I guess I'll read it in about three years time ;)

    1. LOL. Thanks for the positive feedback and for taking time out from the book pile to read my blog. I do recommend this book and I expect it will be available to buy for a while yet. Sue xx

  3. Interesting post Sue, thanks for sharing. I shall look out for book, it sounds a good read.

    1. Thank you. I found it scary and fascinating by turns. I'm currently rereading it, and that doesn't happen often these days. Sue xx