The truth, so they say, will set you free. For Chelsea Manning the meaning of that phrase is far from literal — the truth concluded last week in a sentence of 35 years of incarceration for revealing hundreds of documents containing US military secrets to WikiLeaks. In a letter to President Obama, appealing for pardon she justifies the necessity of her actions based on her conviction that in its occupation of Iraq, the US not only committed acts of unjustified violence against civilians and combatants but actively fought accountability by using the privileges of secrecy. In her letter, Manning claims she acted “out of love for [her] country.” Recognizing the most damning critique of her actions, Manning pre-empts allegations that she lacks patriotism by highlighting the use of patriotism to excuse “morally questionable acts.”
Love and accountability equally motivates Manning’s third revelation: after expressing thanks and indebtedness to her supporters, Manning writes that she “wants everyone to know the real me.” Not only a precursor to detailing her new name, and the revelation that she is female, the phraseology “real me” reiterates Manning’s moral convictions that repudiate secrecy. Wanting “everyone” to know that she is female, and has been so since childhood, Manning makes plain the implications — that others should henceforth refer to by her new name and using feminine pronouns.
Manning’s revelations and their reception are particularly interesting when considered contextually. Manning gave information to WikiLeaks, which quickly reported on it, at a time of US ambivalence toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ongoing deployments and deaths, mounting costs and constant but paradoxical government discourses of fear, humanitarianism, empire, and torture made Americans considerably more sympathetic to the news of Manning’s disclosures than they might perhaps have otherwise been. In revealing her name and gender, Manning used the ABC media network to release her letter to the public, in turn igniting a media storm marked by critiques of the transphobic refusal to honor Manning’s specified gender identity by reporters, hand-wringing over how to decide when to grant someone the honor of gender identity choice, debates about health policy and law, and requests for accountability aimed at the military regarding its policies on gender, identity, psychiatry, and prisons.
Manning writes in her appeal that should she be denied pardon that she would “gladly pay that price” of incarceration “if it means we could have a country that is truly conceived in liberty…” By comparing post-9/11 US policy and military action to iconic “dark moments for the virtues of democracy” — such as the US governments forced internment of Japanese civilians and the Dred Scott decision — Manning asserts that democracy demands transparency and accountability. The details of her letter are few and less eloquent, but in saying “given the way I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible” Manning equates truth — the way she feels and has felt — with action: change, accountability, righting the wrong. Manning thus argues in her actions and words for a moral practice of truth: gestures bring forth liberty — for herself and for the political community to which she belongs.
Interesting as her moral claims are, they rest on a familiar rhetoric of US and western discourse, usually applied to miscreant state leaders in the south, in the context of development, human rights or transitional justice issues. If “the truth” and “who you are” must be revealed: who decides what is a site of secrecy? Who should be called to account for themselves? Must we reveal ourselves, or be revealed, in order to have liberty and justice? US justifications for invading Afghanistan relied on neoliberal feminist arguments that Taliban laws restricting the physical liberty of women demanded a military response by the US government on the basis that the bodies of Afghan women were, in effect, sites of secrecy. US democracy building, the argument went, would represent the liberation of Afghan women.
Nonetheless, Manning’s letter this week indeed resulted in democratic engagements and accountability. After initially deciding to use masculine pronouns to refer to Manning in reporting on her ABC letter, major news organizations including CNN, CBS, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal — to name a few — were roundly criticized in an internet debate on the politics of naming and transgender rights issues that probably introduced more cisgender (those for whom birth-assigned gender and current gender identity are compatible) people — many of them editors at respected publications—to the importance of naming and self-determination for transgender populations than any other recent efforts. Certainly Edward Snowden, and others who similarly revealed government secrets, benefit from Manning’s actions. Increasing understandings of how US government action affects the American population and its civil liberties — and in Snowden’s case, the rights of US allies as well — have revealed how few checks exist on Washington’s power. These revelations provoke expected responses from the military and government that seek to assure the public that these acts are applied sparingly and are simply steps taken to ensure its own safety. Cold comfort, to be sure. But the public nature of recent leaks and the resulting fear and unease in the populations meant that politicians seeking re-election account for their role in secret and morally opaque actions by the government.
Having suffered through a number of psychological crises and bearing the scars of secrecy and repression herself, Manning can hardly be blamed for being emphatic about truth. Reports throughout her trial and sentencing paint a picture of a soldier in deep psychological distress. Military psychologist Capt. Michael Worsley is quoted in the New York Times as remarking on the “hypermasculine” culture of combat, and commenting that Manning would have been under “incredible” pressure. Scholarship on transgender military personnel suggests transgender soldiers often report that they decided to enroll in the military in order to use its rigid masculine codes and displays of violence and male superiority — its hypermasculine ethic — to restore their feelings of alienation from masculinity. Given the goal of identification with military masculinity it is unsurprising that Manning acted out under pressure through physical breakdowns and in repeated acts of violence against herself and others. Her supervisor, former Master Sergeant Paul Adkins, repeatedly tried to help her through her struggles, but was limited by the knowledge that revealing the full extent of Manning’s distress — including the emails discussing her struggles with gender and expression — would have foreclosed her options for an honorable discharge.
Perhaps Manning’s actions and her story — both as a soldier and as a subject of media curiosity and reportage give support to her inherent claim that truth can be a path to liberty. In naming the horrors of the War on Terror and in naming her secret — or perhaps silenced — self, Manning provokes discomfort and in doing so makes the military, the government, and the media objects of scrutiny; calling on them to account for themselves. The questions that are aroused in US citizens, the critiques that are aimed at powerful media: this is the space between truth and liberation that has the greatest meaning. When truths invigorate democracy by politicizing citizens, shedding light on the countless “dark spaces” of political action, and give voice to the silenced and marginalized, truths can equally forward the goals of freedom from the excessive regimes of empire—or indeed, of gender.
Nomvuyo Nolutshungu is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her dissertation explores role of expertise and discourse in shaping transitional justice. She can be found at itsnotcricket.com, colonialporn.tumblr.com, and twitter.com/nomvuyo. Click here to read her previous articles on Warscapes.