The story of Pfc. Bradley Manning is a grand personal tragedy with a small potential for a happy ending.
On Wednesday, a military judge sentenced Manning to 35 years in prison for giving WikiLeaks some 750,000 classified military documents. On Thursday, Manning announced that he will begin living as a woman, and his name will be Chelsea Manning.
Those two stark facts may seem unrelated, but they are deeply intertwined.
“As I transition into this next phase of my life,” Manning wrote in a statement that Savannah Guthrie read on the “Today” show, “I want everyone to know the real me. I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female. Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible. I hope that you will support me in this transition. I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun (except in official mail to the confinement facility).”
This news will not shock those who have followed the testimony at Manning’s court-martial trial at Ft. Meade in Maryland.
Over the course of the trial, family members, mental health experts and superiors painted a portrait of an unbalanced young man from an extremely dysfunctional background coping poorly with questions about his identity at the very moment he was handling sensitive military intelligence.
A 20-year-old soldier responsible for analyzing insurgent threats, Manning was gay at a time when homosexuality was against military law, confused about whether he’d been born the right gender and an emotional basket case.
There were many warning signs: He had emailed a photograph of himself dressed as a woman in a blond wig to one of his supervisors with the subject line “My Problem.” The problem, Manning wrote, “makes my entire life feel like a bad dream that won’t end.” He was once found in a storage room, clutching his head, in a fetal position, with a knife at his feet. When rebuked for relatively minor infractions, he could go “catatonic” or resort to angry outbursts, turning over tables.
But his supervisors kept him on the job because they were short-staffed.
In January 2010, Manning downloaded and passed to WikiLeaks a trove of classified information.
The most memorable item, and the one that put WikiLeaks on the map, was the video of a 2007 American Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad.
Dubbed “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, the video showed the helicopter firing on and killing a journalist and two Reuters employees who were carrying cameras that the pilots mistook for grenade launchers. The video also showed the helicopter firing on a van that stopped to help the injured journalists. Twelve people in all were killed in the botched attack.
Military authorities at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., where Manning is to be incarcerated, must find a way to deal sensitively with the request for hormone therapy. Manning, whose extreme solitary confinement has been a kind of brutalization and a cause for international outrage, has expressed remorse for passing along the secret documents.
“I am sorry that my actions hurt people,” Manning told the judge during sentencing. “I am sorry that it hurt the United States.” (WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said the apology was “extracted by force” and “extorted from him under the overbearing weight of the United States military justice system.”)
Despite the 35-year sentence (the government had requested 60), with good behavior and time already served Manning can be out in about eight years.
“This is a young man who is capable of being redeemed,” his attorney, David Coombs, said at the sentencing. “We should not rob him of his youth.”
In some quarters, Manning’s new identity has caused nary a ripple.
Thursday morning, midway through her interview with Coombs, after reading Manning’s statement, Guthrie seamlessly began referring to the soldier as “her.”
A few moments later, I looked up “Bradley Manning” in Wikipedia, and was redirected to a page called “Chelsea Manning.” All the pronouns had already been switched.