Chelsea Manning’s courageous memoir, README.txt, debunks critics and reclaims the narrative around her decision to leak 750,000 classified documents exposing hidden war crimes committed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq. The fallout that subsequently followed is harrowing.
Chelsea Manning, a high-profile transgender activist and whistleblower, was at one time the most famous transgender political prisoner on the planet. She suffered shocking persecution after making the decision to expose war crimes committed by the U.S. military. The book begins with Manning, then a 22-year-old junior intelligence analyst in the U.S. army, anxiously waiting for the WiFi to kick in at a Barnes and Noble bookstore, as she tries to upload her explosive haul. This act of sharing classified information will have life-changing repercussions. Her book articulates the reasons why she chose to share U.S. atrocities with the world.
README.txt is also a fascinating read for its insights into Manning’s early years as part of a dysfunctional family in small-town Oklahoma. Originally assigned male at birth, she writes candidly about the pressures created by this environment, coupled with questioning her gender throughout her childhood and early adult life.
Manning’s early life was shaped by emotional, physical and economic instability, family abuse and a societal culture of homophobia and transphobia. Forced to suppress her gender identity, she found much solace in using her computer to connect with the queer community. Online video games, chat rooms, and hacking local databases not only became hobbies but also ways that Manning could cope with the onslaught of abuse and mental anguish she copped as a teenager.
The circumstances around her parents’ separation and eventual divorce, her mother’s alcoholism, and her veteran father’s violence saw Manning homeless, living hand-to-mouth in Chicago throughout her late teens. She describes sleeping in her car and hanging out at queer nightclubs, with the hope of being picked up and going home with someone — bringing the bonus of a shower. Often unemployed, whenever she picked up work it was casual and low paid. Due to this period of terrible economic instability, she was forced to drop out of college. With few options, she wandered into a military recruitment centre. Like so many other working-class Americans, especially people of colour, when faced with poverty, she enlisted in the military for economic reasons. She signed up as a cadet, choosing to work as an analyst.
But for Manning, the looming recession, when combined with the lived experience as a closeted trans-woman, made the experience more difficult than for most. Manning faced the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. After many years of fighting the ban on gays in the military, the queer community, which had hoped for real change, were devastated when the Clinton administration settled on this ugly compromise. In place for the next 17 years, it denied LGBTIQ+ folks in the military the right to be themselves. In README.txt, we see how this deprived Manning of the ability to access much-needed support in the military.
When Manning was involved in the queer community in Chicago and later Maryland, she was on the fringes of activism. She attended her first protest in opposition to Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. She states that, in this period, she was somewhat “politically naive” about the role of the U.S. intervention in the Middle East. This changed when she eventually deployed to Iraq. Her experience in Baghdad was dehumanising — the military policies, which forced her to suppress her identity, massively impacted her life. She attributes her political growth during her time in the military to the queer, radical leftist groups she began to interact with, mostly online. These groups provided her with an extensive history and understanding of the fight for queer rights. Gradually, she explains, she began to make a connection with the unjustifiable war crimes being committed against innocent civilians in Iraq.
Eventually, Manning could no longer remain complicit in these crimes. Her decision to leak thousands of documents and video footage to Wikileaks is now legendary. “The human right to privacy, the right not to be manipulated or coerced or actively destroyed by a government, wasn’t something I considered on a deep level, not at first,” she writes. However, after realising the implications of the war, specifically the role of the U.S. military and the political power it held, Manning made the decision because, in her words, “I wanted the American people to know what was being done in their name.” She classifies the war, not as a quest to save the lives of innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians. It was “about trying to project American hegemony to other powers in the region.” That hegemony, in the form of global military dominance, saw the deaths of countless innocent civilians, all of which Manning, as part of her role as an intelligence analyst, was forced to watch footage of. After witnessing hours upon hours of these senseless, barbaric deaths, Manning wanted to alert the world to the true intent of Washington’s imperialist intervention into Iraq and Afghanistan — which was to assert control and dominance across the region for profit.
Chelsea Manning was eventually arrested for leaking the intelligence documents and video footage she smuggled out of Iraq. The most explosive of which was the infamous Collateral Murder video, which became global news. Manning discusses this video in detail. It depicts the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians, two of whom were journalists working for the news outlet, Reuters.
Reading details of Chelsea Manning’s time in solitary confinement is gruelling, and excruciating — but also important. I learnt about the brutality she was subjected to in confinement. Particularly difficult to read are her descriptions of the prison guards’ mental manipulation. The physical toll this took on Manning is unmistakable, and she writes knowing that this was done entirely to break her down into a vegetative state. Ultimately, it led to a suicide attempt, which she survived.
The treatment Chelsea Manning suffered at the hands of the U.S. government was clearly designed as a warning to other would-be whistleblowers. The torture and tactical abuse was deliberate in its attempts to mentally and physically destroy her. But while we see terrible lows, it ultimately made her stronger. She is extremely critical of the Obama administration’s role in Iraq, as well as its treatment of her in solitary confinement. Her trial in 2013 gained extensive media coverage. This saw support for her grow around the world, including a huge Freedom Socialist Party-initiated Free Chelsea Manning contingent in the Melbourne Pride March.
The trial saw her charged with espionage and sentenced to 35 years in prison with parole. Manning writes of wanting to get up on trial and speak for herself, much to the chagrin of her lawyers who dissuaded her from doing so. Throughout the trial, her gender dysphoria was misrepresented by the U.S. government as a key reason why she leaked vital intelligence information. This was not true. She argues countless times that she was motivated solely by the need to alert the world that U.S. war crimes were being covered up. But she is a role model for the trans and queer community inspired by her determined fight — including a hunger strike — to win her right to be able to transition whilst in prison.
Chelsea Manning was pardoned and released in 2017. She will remain a towering figure, having risked her life to tell the world the true cost of U.S. intervention and imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan. There has been much written about Chelsea Manning. README.txt is a powerful read, as it finally gives her the chance to tell her story in her own words, from her childhood through her turbulent teens, to her time in the military, to where she is now — an inspiring trans hero and activist who continues to fight for the rights of all oppressed peoples around the globe.
Maudie Osborne is a member of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union. She relates to Chelsea Manning’s experience of struggling with insecure work.