“The truth was not negotiable”

The subject matter of README.txt by Chelsea Manning is complicated. The book itself, and my feelings about it, are not. The memoir is a valuable document of a moment in recent history as lived by the person whose rare actions became its catalyst. Here are the recollections of a woman who, at a young age, made her own history, though she did not make it as she pleased. And though she did not make her history under self-selected circumstances, she guides us through those already-existing circumstances, given and transmitted from the past, that at once severely constrained who she could be in the world, and presented her with an opportunity to change it in a way that few people ever will.

Cover art for README.txt by Chelsea Manning

The title is apt; it refers to an explanatory file Manning attached to a trove of military documents she anonymously leaked to the press during her time as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst, but the entire memoir also reads like such a file: the kind of straightforward, comprehensive guide anyone who regularly works with computer information hopes to find upon opening an unfamiliar archive. For all it covers, I felt the book could have been much longer; I take its relative brevity as a sign of restraint in service of getting right to the point about what the reader needs to know. This is not to suggest that there is no art to Manning's prose. Now and then she deploys a subtle poetic metaphor where a dry accounting of events cannot convey the inner experience of the events of her life. But overall, the prose reflects an urgency and clarity of purpose. Its sentence constructions and vocabulary are simple, and the author never assumes much prior knowledge on the reader's part. But the text is never condescending in tone, either. It's clear from the way Manning explains everything—from what day-to-day life was like for a homeless young adult in Chicago's gay club scene and how U.S. Army Basic Training was structured in the waning years of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell era to what the Tor browser project is for and how IRC chatrooms function—that she wants to give you, the reader, every chance to follow along and understand the context of key decisions in her life even if your background is vastly different from hers.

A lifeline of last resort

One such decision a reader may not understand coming into the book is just why Chelsea Manning—source of the highest-profile leak of U.S. military information since Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers that revealed the public justification for the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam as a lie—enlisted in the Army in the first place. It might seem at first glance that the military, especially in the Don't Ask, Don't Tell years, was obviously opposed to everything she was as a person: a trans woman, committed to public transparency and protecting human life, including the lives of Iraqi civilians that were so often identified as “unlawful enemy combatants” because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The opening chapters of the book never make excuses for Manning's enlistment, but they clearly illustrate a timeline of experiences that led her to a situation where joining the Army would have seemed like a rational (though not inevitable) choice.

The experiences that led Chelsea Manning to the military stretch all the way back into her childhood with a Navy veteran father, who constantly talked up his military career as the singular thing that had imposed structure and meaning on his life when he was a young man. More subtly, though, Chelsea's early love of the then-nascent internet, and the impression made on her by terrorist attacks to which she was exposed, presaged the direction of her later career. She literally heard the blast of the Oklahoma City bombing from her small Oklahoma hometown miles away, as a child in 1995. She was affected, as all of us were, not only by horror of the coordinated airliner attacks of 11 September 2001, but also by the topsy-turvy, jingoistic political climate that formed in its aftermath. And in 2005, during the adolescent years she spent living with her mother in Wales, she had a solo errand in London interrupted by the coordinated bombing attacks on the Underground.

Manning's childhood was altogether difficult, though perhaps not unusually so for a queer youth born to conservative, alcoholic parents in a rural, working-class household. And the text shows the reader how this element of Manning's childhood too made the military eventually seem like one of her best options. This background did not provide a smooth path into self-sufficient adulthood. Instead, after high school Manning found herself drifting from job to job, even with her valuable technical skills, and eventually found herself homeless and living out of a barely functional pickup truck. When a relative later provided her with stable housing and she nailed down a consistent Starbucks barista job, she found that the erratic schedule of her work and prohibitive cost of tuition at badeven the local community college left her unsure she'd ever find the kind of work that would let her move out on her own and pay the rent. Gender transition, of which she had only just become aware, seemed a far-off dream next to these more basic questions of survival.

Manning is just a few years older than I, another resident of the autism spectrum (“diagnosed with mild Asperger's”), holds similar formative memories of a strange internet landscape that preceded the rise of MySpace and Facebook, and hails from a similar class background, which is to say that I was not materially deprived as a child but did not have parents who could simply pay my rent so I could move out on my own as soon as I reached adulthood, or pay my entire college tuition for me, or line me up with my first job. So with this degree of superficial familiarity, it is hard for me not to imagine myself into various episodes of Chelsea Manning's early life and wonder, if things had gone just a little differently, whether that kid I was reading about could have been me. What if my parents were alcoholics? What if my father had been even half as physically abusive as his own father was before him? What if, when my parents divorced, one of them had moved to Wales, and not just across town? What if my sexuality were a more definitively felt thing for me, and not such a wishy-washy mess—might I have kissed a boy at school and learned exactly who around me had enough anti-gay bigotry that they would hurt a child? What if, similarly, my gender had manifested as something definite, something that pulled me toward gender transition at a time when I only knew about that realm of human experience as something I would hear sneeringly mocked whenever my mom turned on talk radio in the car? What if I lost the option of living with my parents early in adulthood—would I have subsisted as resourcefully on the streets? (Probably not.) And if I hadn't had the opportunity to mortgage my future with enormous student loans, if my body were better army material, would I have found myself enlisting like she did?

Manning walked into a U.S. Army recruitment office desperate for a way to finance her education and launch a career that would enable her to move out of her aunt's house, rent her own place, and maybe even begin to transition someday (though certainly not during military service, as the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy effectively meant that a service member would be discharged as soon as the military discovered that they were trans). The recruitment officers were the friendliest people she had ever met in a professional setting, and even friendlier when they saw her aptitude test results. For the first time in her life she had made a professional contact that actually showed interest in her future, in bringing some stability to her life. Manning had just passed through a great pipeline that runs through U.S. society. On one end, the absence of any kind of robust social safety net or guaranteed employment or higher education causes a lot of people to “fall through the cracks” into lives of constant precarity. On the other end of the pipeline, the military is waiting to catch them with open arms, provided they are young enough and conform to certain physical and academic specifications. Manning does not describe the “pipeline” as I just did, and instead mostly allows readers to notice for themselves the broader patterns in the specific incidents she recounts. But she does acknowledge the striking commonality between her own recruitment and that of many of her colleagues in military intelligence:

Often, people had ended up in the military because they found themselves in their thirties and unable, despite their natural abilities and even a college degree, to lift themselves out of poverty.

The army was a lifeline of last resort for many of my colleagues, as it had been for me.

(Although Chelsea Manning herself does not make this point, it is not lost on me that cults seem to recruit from essentially the same pool of people. But that is something to discuss another time.)

And here is the understated genius of README.txt: Chelsea Manning has knack for seamlessly positioning the rich sensory specificities of her own life experience within a broad and well-considered sociological tapestry. She can provide enough detail to allow readers to imagine themselves physically in her place, but also take that wide-angle view where we glimpse the broader social systems in which these actions and transactions are performed, without it ever getting pedagogical or academic.

Unlawful disclosure

I first noticed an unexpected and troubling typographical feature about two-thirds of the way through README.txt. Partway through a sentence describing the public reaction to the military intelligence materials Chelsea Manning had leaked, I hit a block of long black bars, the sort that replace lines of text that have been redacted from a declassified document. There are a few examples of this throughout the text. It felt especially odd to me at first because I was using an e-reader that “reflows” text to fit my prefered font choices, margins, &c, so I briefly entertained the idea that what I was looking at was a formatting error not present in the print version. But it wasn't the first occurence of this quirk, and the places where this occurred all seemed to fit a pattern. What I think happened is this: the manuscript of the memoir was subject to official review, ostensibly to prevent the publication of any information that could compromise national security. Likely, the author and her editors agreed to comply with some of the censors' objections and revised the manuscript to remove that information in a way that would not be visible to the reader. But the context of all these visibly redacted passages seems to indicate that they discuss details of the information revealed in those leaks. Information that, no matter how the Department of Defense or the national security establishment feels about it, became public a decade ago. I suspect that Manning found the prospect of quietly omitting these long-public details from her memoir to be an unreasonable request, and decided to make these omissions obvious to the reading public by instead performing a visible redaction.

E-reader displaying a redacted passage in README.txt

Chelsea Manning bemoans the absurdity of her court-martial and sentencing procedings, in which reporters and other public observers were routinely removed from the courtroom to preserve the secrecy of classified information that had already been published in the pages of papers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. How much more absurd and petty to demand that this information not appear in her memoir after all these years!

It is striking that the struggle to bring suppressed truth to light became a such a throughline for Manning from the moment she enlisted, whether it was her own personal reality under a Don't Ask, Don't Tell military policy era that effectively prevented her from even reporting a deeply traumatic sexual assault at the hands of an officer for legitimate fear of being discharged, or the more broadly consequential truths of what U.S. forces were doing in the countries they claimed to be liberating.

But Manning makes very clear that being trans had nothing to do with her decision to become military whistleblower. She describes, as clearly as she can given the constraints of ongoing censorship, what gave her the moral clarity to decide that she needed to ensure the public would know some of what she saw in the course of her work. The awful war she saw in person did not remotely resemble the war she read about in U.S. newspapers, and she believed that if the public knew the truth about the war they might bring about positive change.

While tracking a militant Shia group that existed, Manning says, “to kill Americans,” she came to this realization:

Tracking this group made it clear to me that our engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan had surprisingly little to do with those actual countries. Our involvement was about a bigger picture. It was about trying to project American hegemony to other powers in the region. You could look at the accumulation of death, after years, on all sides, and think that the war was unwinnable. Or you could consider whether pouring enormous resources into a never-ending war was actually the point.


We were dying over posturing, over bullshit.

This posturing, this bullshit, was regularly getting innocent people killed. In one personally relevant case Manning recounts, U.S. operators she had provided with intelligence instead used a long-outdated report to plan an operation against a known insurgent:

The operators relied on this bad information and went to the wrong building, where they killed everyone in the house who resisted capture, all the witnesses, and finally, even the fucking dog.

I came back from lunch to news of about a dozen presumably innocent people who were now all dead. We had to pretend it had never happened.

In Iraq, Manning also watched her fellow soldiers celebrate when an Iraqi civilian was killed by an explosive intended for a U.S. military vehicle:

Instead of being upset at the random death of an onlooker, my fellow soldiers were elated: Thank goodness OUR people weren't killed. And hey, look, even our vehicle was minimally damaged! The dead and injured Iraqis, who had nothing to do with this battle, weren't even spoken about as collateral damage. They were talked about as human armor for us.

Manning understood that the deplorable behavior of so many fellow soldiers was not simply a case of bad people in uniform, but of the unprincipled war they were commanded to wage bringing out the worst elements of human nature:

With enough grief, adrenaline, and fear, we can all become amoral—even malevolent.

The spectacle of the war in U.S. media, with its “smart bombs” and “surgical strikes” in service of spreading democracy, belied the truth of this bullshit conflict in which U.S. forces were constantly killing civilians on improperly handled intelligence or thin assumptions, were conditioned to regard the Iraqi population as less than human, and were frequently dying themselves for no cause more noble than “to project American hegemony.”

Amidst this contradiction, an analyst at Chelsea Manning's level (trusted with raw intelligence from the widest possible range of sources, but not so high-ranking that she would have to deal mostly with highly abstracted reports derived from that intelligence) was constantly working with information that dramatically contradicted the consensus picture of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan within U.S. media. That information was in most cases reflexively classified, though as a practical matter much of it would not actually endanger anyone if it became public knowledge. What stayed classified, and what was instead declassified and shared with the press, was largely an arbitrary decision, as Manning discovered when an intelligence report she created strictly for internal military purposes was released to the Iraqi press:

I asked a press affairs officer why he took off the classification markings and how he could do it so quickly. His reply—an honest, succinct one—has lingered in my mind: 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 realized that no only did I not think the stuff needed to be secret, neither did the higher-ups, at least not when it suited them. In that instant, I began to consider whether the public deserved to have the same information that I did. If we were briefing journalists on the full picture when it suited us, why not all of the time? This was, after all, historical information.

Armed as she was with classified intelligence that could dismantle media manipulation about the war, she came to understand doing so as a moral obligation:

I always had the responsibility of other people's lives in my hands. This felt, in some sense, like just another choice, where I was weighing the costs and benefits and deciding that this was the best way to save lives.

No good deed…

And boy, was she punished for fulfilling that moral obligation! From the time that Manning was arrested at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Iraq, she spent years awaiting court-martial, much of that in stretches of several months at a time in solitary confinement conditions that U.N. observers found to be “in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture.” When she did finally have her day in court, she was was sentenced to thirty-five years in prison, under an Obama administration that came to be seen as hostile toward any party that brought U.S. state secrets to media—not only for Manning's case, but also for that of Edward Snowden, who revealed wide-reaching surveillance campaigns conducted by the NSA both abroad and targeting civilians within the U.S. A thirty-five year sentence for bringing evidence of wrongdoing to the media was unprecedented at the time, and was eventually cut down to seven years only through an unexpected commutation from President Obama during his last days in office.

Manning and her legal counsel attempted plea negotiations with the prosecution that might have reduced her sentence to a minimum of twenty years, but negotiations broke down for a few reasons. Twenty years is still a long time to spend in prison for whistleblowing, for one thing, and maybe not the most tempting offer that could have been made. Further, the prosecution would not move forward on a deal that didn't include Manning pleading guilty to “aiding the enemy,” which could have set a very bad precendent for future journalistic sources, and did not reflect any concrete proof that the disclosures at issue had materially aided an enemy of the United States. But an especially contentious issue was simply a matter of telling the truth; prosecutors wanted Manning to agree to a version of events that included inaccuracies about when she leaked certain documents, inaccuracies that were convenient for the prosecution's narrative. She refused to sign off on statements containing these inaccuracies over the course of negotiations. “The truth,” she writes in her memoir, “was not negotiable.” The thing she seems to regret most in her recounting of the legal proceedings is the statement she read, drafted by her legal team in hopes of reducing her sentence, in which she apologized for the hurt she caused by her disclosures. She was reluctant to read this statement in court because it contradicted the truth she had been trying to convey all along: that her disclosures were chosen carefully and communicated through journalistic outlets that would provide advance warning to authorities about personally identifiable information they contained to prevent such harms, and that those disclosures were morally justified.

I acted as I did because of what I saw, because of the values I hold.

Manning highlights other people who were essentially punished by the military for doing the right thing. Ethan McCord, a soldier who appears in the infamous “Collateral Murder” video Manning leaked to the press and worked to rescue children in the aftermath of the events the video captured, spoke to the press about the unjustifiability of the war when he was sent home with disabling combat injuries. For this, the Army discharged him on the basis of “a preexisting personality disorder” instead of his injuries, rendering him for veterans' disability benefits. Marine Corps veteran Jeff Paterson, who was court-martialed for an act of pacifist resistance against Operation Desert Storm, provided “critical” financial support to Manning's legal battle. Manning's boss, one Master Sargeant Paul Adkins, was demoted seemingly because he chose not to report to his stories when Manning disclosed her trans status to him via email, which would likely have resulted in her immediate discharge from the Army.

Manning's case stands out here for the sheer severity of the punishment prescribed for her whistleblowing. She was often singled out for extra punishment in military prison. But in her memoir she does not describe the inhumanity she experienced in prison as wholly unique. Because she spent so much time in prison—more time than she did as an intelligence analyst—a large portion of the book takes place there. The descriptions of prison life make clear that many of the indignities and inhumanities she experienced there—the arbitrary and collective acts of humiliation and torture as reprisals for fabricated interactions, the unofficial but thoroughly enforced racial segregation, the denial of prescribed medical treatment, and the singling out of trans inmates for particular cruelty—were widespread practices in military prison, and everything I know about U.S. civilian prisons tells me they are no different. As narrator of the text, Manning does not opine on the overall ethics of the carceral system, and I do not know whether she has a public stance on it. All she does is relate what happened to her and her fellow inmates, and also what she did both on her own and collectively with other inmates to bargain for modest improvements to prison conditions. But for me personally it would be difficult to come out of this book without a lot of sympathy for the cause of prison abolition.

On this note, the decision to wrap up this memoir with only the briefest possible summary of everything that has occurred since Manning was released from military prison means that as readers we don't get any real detail about another cruel twist in the story of the legal fallout from Manning's disclosures. In 2019 and 2020, she was sent to a civilian prison twice for refusing to testify before grand jury proceedings regarding the role of WikiLeaks spokesperson Julian Assange in publishing her disclosures. It was more punishment for taking a principled stand regarding transparency, especially striking because, judging from the book's brief descriptions of Assange as a divisive figure within the WikiLeaks Organization who sought control over the group and attempted to reshape it around his own ego, it doesn't seem that Manning even likes him much as a person.

A view from outside

I was a full-time psychology student at a small liberal arts college in New York City when Chelsea Manning was arrested. Just kinda starting to find my way in the world and lucked into having an easier time of than she did. I remember pulling up the front page of WikiLeaks during a visit to my dad's house, just idly trying to figure out what it was all about. A big banner about the “Collateral Murder” video was front and center. I didn't look further; I've always tended to digest this kind of thing in prepared reports rather than watch the gore for myself, so I read about what was in it instead. Some time later, my dad, who worked for a defense contractor, told me everyone at the office had been warned to stay away from WikiLeaks.

I was a kid in 2003 when the invasion began and didn't really get it. The way it was explained on TV was something like: Saddam Hussein is a madman dictator hiding weapons of mass destruction and for some reason it is the responsibility of the United States to intervene. And somehow it was meant to be a response to the 9/11 attacks, which had nothing directly to do with Iraq. There were steps in there I didn't really understand. And there were a lot of smart people saying the “weapons of mass destruction” were a lie, cover to exert control over foreign oil reserves.

Sometime between then and 2010 it had become very obvious that everyone who had scoffed at the Bush administration line on “WMDs” was right, that it really was all a lie. A new administration had come in, a president accused by the most unhinged parts of the conspiratorial right of being secretly Muslim, born on foreign soil and hiding behind a fake Hawaiian birth certificate. But in concrete terms little about foreign policy seemed to have concretely changed. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq simply kept going, the horizon of peace slipping ever further into the future. And the fascistic jingoism that had appeared in the shadow of 9/11, the demand in more pugilistic corners of mass media that cowards and traitors be rooted out and that we reassert the masculine might of our military, continued unabated. I heard it in the way some people talked about what they thought should happen to Beau Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier captured in Afghanistan after privately expressing moral disgust at U.S. military actions there and walking away from his observation post at night. And I heard it again when Chelsea Manning was arrested.

The first chapter of README.txt describes the day Manning made her first upload to a WikiLeaks-affiliated server, using the WiFi in the café of a chain bookstore in Tysons Corner, Virginia, in the middle of a snowstorm, on her last day of leave before returning to Iraq. She says it was just after making that fateful upload that she took a selfie, long before she would have the chance to transition, wearing a wig and lipstick. She included the photo in an impulsive email revealing that she was trans to her boss, Master Sargeant Adkins, and it would later be used as part of the military's pubic relations campaign against her, an example of what she says is the military's “nuts and sluts” tactic for discrediting whistleblowers. I seem to recall her being portrayed as both.

Grayscale, low-resolution selfie of Chelsea Manning, taken the day of her first upload to WikiLeaks

The revelation of this photo brought out the worst in a lot of media figures. I remember even “liberal” pundits opining that it was evidence that the military should have known she was “mentally unstable” before her disclosures. But it helped to crystalize my support for her cause and believe the unsettling truths her disclosures brought to light. Because I knew, watching the ugly rhetoric building around her, that anyone who saw in this photo evidence of madness, depravity, or treason was full of shit. Because it was the most natural thing in the world, a young woman savoring a moment out of uniform, trying on something cute. For me the photo is inspiring, powerful, beautiful. It expresses a feeling that Manning describes having in the moment she sent that email that could have immediately ended her career, emboldened by the publication of a video she had leaked:

I wanted the era of secrets to be over in my life.

But I still feel a little sheepish about sharing it. Surely she has taken better selfies. So here's one she took on 1 May 2022, expressing her support for labor organizing at Twitter. She looks like she's thriving. No one's stopping her from growing her hair out now:

Chelsea Manning celebrating International Workers' Day outside Twitter headquarters This photo by Chelsea Manning is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 license and scaled down from the original.

For so long, in a repressive military environment, in her prolonged court-martial, and in prison, Manning was prevented from telling the full truth, the full story of her own actions. This allowed them to become almost mythologized—as villainous treachery for some, and as saintly acts of pacifist self-sacrifice for others, but in both cases disconnected from the plain reality of what she actually did and why. Now that she has told us nearly that whole story, at least as much of it as she legally can, she has demystified those first chapters of her life that end when she first left prison. She was never a conniving monster out to get her fellow soldiers killed, nor was she an impossibly virtous martyr for a pacifist cause. She was someone who had access to devestating truths most people weren't allowed to see, and she realized how important it was for the public to see some of them. She was at the right place, at the right time, and had the fortitude to act, not knowing what might become of her as a result. We're better off for it.

Where not otherwise noted, the content of this blog is written by Dominique Cyprès and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.