A surreal nightmare - Chelsea Manning's README.txt

Here are my thoughts on Chelsea Manning's memoir README.txt

Reading Chelsea Manning's README.txt was an odd experience for me. On the one hand, there were lots of things that made me feel connected to her and interested in her story. The most obvious was that we are both trans women, and we began our transitions at roughly the same time. And of course, her struggles for trans care were widely publicized, so I was aware of them, and to a certain extent my transition was also fairly public, if within a much smaller social network and the Python community. We had grown up in very conservative parts of the country - in her case, Oklahoma (at least in part) and in mine, Nebraska. In addition, her use of technology and the internet was similar to mine in the 90's and 2000's.

With that said, there were some real differences. For one thing I'm more than 30 years older, so I had served a self-imposed term of decades of suppressing my gender identity, waiting until circumstances made it safer and easier to transition. Chelsea's childhood was abusive in many ways, while I would not claim that of mine. And in spite of some temptation, I had resisted and avoided entering the military.

In spite of the points of connection, I was not immediately grabbed by her story. She starts with the striking scene of her desperately trying to upload all of the files via a shaky network connection in suburban mall land, during a snowstorm no less, with less than 24 hours before she has to get on a plane back to Iraq. But the telling of it is a bit pedestrian, and it takes a while for the story to emerge. Dramatic as it might be, the how and the why of the uploading of information about the war is not the story. Rather it's what happened after she was caught that I found more compelling.

The story of how she came to have that information and how she uploaded it is all too simple, and the why is not so well articulated, emerging as it does from a tough childhood and rootless adolescence that ended in the army almost out of desperation.

But once she is discovered and taken into custody things get much more gripping. The style is still matter of fact, flat, and mostly emotionless, as if it could only be told by keeping it safely at arm's length. It's a story that is almost Kafka-esque in its absurd cruelty. Earlier, when describing basic training, Chelsea acknowledges that its function is to break people, tear down part of who they are in order to reconstruct them as different people. It's interesting to me that of all the veterans I've known, the only other person who described military training that way was another trans woman, who washed out of ROTC because she wouldn't endure that.

Chelsea on the other hand gives a sense that the process of breaking and rebuilding that happens basic training was not all bad for her. So it's interesting that once in the clutches of the US government she is the target of a similar process, except there is no goal of rebuilding a new personality this time. This time the only goal is to destroy her totally. The unemotional descriptions of the inhuman torture they put her through leaves no doubt that the primary concern of her jailers and the government was pure revenge, nothing more.

That she survived her initial captivity and what was a bizarre show trial (bizarre in that many parts of it were blacked out in the name of "security") and her early captivity is amazing. The treatment she received from her own government, our government, as a citizen on US soil, under an administration that was supposedly humane and progressive, should be a curative for any idealism in regards to the justice of our ways.

If there is anything positive in the story it would be that once she given even the slightest breathing space, she was able to find people to help her as she found ways to deal with the government and even gain concessions from it, both in terms of dealing with prison and in forcing the grudging accommodation of her gender transition.

In the end her eventual movement to Leavenworth to serve her 35 year sentence (which seems almost like summer camp in comparison to what went before) and even the eventual commutation of her sentence and her release all seem not so much the restoration of justice as a calculated attempt to evade the judgment of history.

Chelsea emerges as someone of intelligence, of stunning courage, but not unscathed. After a difficult youth and her nightmarish captivity, she is not broken, but the scars (and even the still open wounds) are extensive, and one wonders if Chelsea Manning will ever be at peace in this world. And to be honest, one wonders if her ordeal was worth it.