Despite its title, The Passion of Bradley Manning is about more than the persecution of one U.S. dissident. Chase Madar’s 2012 book offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives on the fate of Private First Class Manning, who stands accused of the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history.
Manning is currently awaiting trial in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after being held in solitary confinement for eleven months, in Kuwait and then Quantico Marine brig. In May 2010, while deployed as an intelligence analyst outside Bagdad, Manning allegedly leaked hundreds of thousands of restricted documents, many of which were published by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. Wikileaks was initiated in 2006 to publish classified and leaked media, with the aim of promoting freedom of speech and information online. The documents reveal new information including civilian casualties in Iraq, human-rights abuses by U.S.-funded private contractors, and the role of spying, bribery, and deception in international diplomacy.
Manning’s story, as told by Madar, is just as much a tale about American society as it is about the young whistleblower. The Passion is many things at once: a biography; a celebration of Manning’s courage and conscience; an account of the “pathological over-classification” of government documents and the closed-door statecraft to which it gives rise; a report on the prevalence and horror of solitary confinement; and an argument against those who would sympathize and explain away Manning’s fundamentally political actions.
Manning’s intention in deciding to contact WikiLeaks was, in Madar’s words, “conscious, coherent, historically informed and above all political.
Chase Madar is a civil rights attorney in New York who writes for the London Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique, The American Conservative (where he is a contributing editor), and CounterPunch. Madar begins his book with a brazen rejection of Manning’s current status as a suspect awaiting military trial on 22 charges, including the capital offense of “aiding the enemy.” The book’s first sentence declares, “Bradley Manning deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Madar next provides a biography of Manning. Madar weaves Manning’s own words throughout the narrative with comments drawn from the messages Manning exchanged with Adrian Lamo, a hacker and confidant who turned in the young soldier to federal authorities in May 2010. These chat logs are now public and available online.
The most important points to emerge from Madar’s story are the coherence and deliberateness of Manning’s political and moral convictions. These are revealed in Manning’s struggles to respond to the injustices he witnessed during his time in Iraq, including the abandonment of Iraqi protesters to the torture-prone Iraqi police, the slaughter of Iraqi civilians in the “Collateral Murder” video, and the realpolitik corruption evident in U.S. diplomatic cables. Manning’s intention in deciding to contact WikiLeaks was, in Madar’s words, “conscious, coherent, historically informed and above all political.”
In presenting such a strong case for Manning’s civic-minded motivations, Madar argues against numerous efforts to pathologize Manning’s behavior. Commentators have tried to patronizingly explain away Manning’s release of classified information as the symptom of his social maladjustment, his psychological instability, and his sexual and gender “confusion.” Against such reductive condescension, Madar convincingly demonstrates the deliberate, serious, and rational views that undergirded Manning’s acts of dissent.
It is perhaps because of his zeal to avoid any reductive psychologizing that Madar gives little attention to Manning’s potential gender transition. The book duly notes that in November 2009, “the soldier was considering gender transformation,” and that in May of 2010, “he was more and more intent on gender transition.” Yet no further comment is given. Madar nowhere acknowledges the dilemma that faces any writer telling Manning’s story: are male pronouns (i.e. “he” “his,” etc.) really the best ones to use? This is despite the fact the chat logs cited so frequently by Madar record Manning’s statement that “I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life, or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me… plastered all over the world press… as boy…”
Madar’s silence is particularly deafening in the chapter entitled “The Torture of Bradley Manning.” While Madar links Manning’s solitary confinement to the practice’s prevalence in the U.S. prison system, he makes no mention of transgendered prisoners who often face one of two grim fates: abuse by other prisoners or “safety” in solitary confinement. Nor does Madar mention the specifically sexual character of some of the abuse Manning faced while under “prevention of injury” watch at Quantico. (Manning testified about his brutal detention conditions on November 29; read about it here, or listen to an account here.)
(This article uses the pronoun “he” to reflect the most recent account available of Manning’s wishes.)
Madar’s book goes on to accomplish several useful tasks. It summarizes the major revelations of the leaks attributed to Manning, including the Iraq War Logs, the Afghan War Logs, and the State Department Cables. Madar sketches a brief history and strategic analysis of American whistleblowers – like Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers at the height of the Vietnam War. While Madar expresses great admiration for these courageous voices, he also concedes that information alone is never enough. The public must be willing to act on what it learns. If we do not make demands in response to Manning’s revelations, we fail him as well as the vision of democracy he upheld.
A subsequent chapter argues that the cruelty of Manning’s conditions of incarceration are not anomalous or exceptional, but rather are typical of the American prison system. Finally, both the international laws governing warfare and the U.S. laws restricting freedom of information are held up for critique. All in all, The Passion of Bradley Manning places Manning’s story within the broad tableau of its global significance.
Two weaknesses qualify the Passion’s usefulness. First, it shows little evidence of primary research, like original interviews. Madar seems to have culled his knowledge almost entirely from existing news stories, blogs, and widely available documents. Nonetheless, the book does provide a useful service in bringing these scattered sources and accounts together.
However, footnotes substantiating individual facts would have been appreciated. A section at the back of the book does list the sources used in each chapter. But the reader who wants to check a particular fact may be unsure from which source it is taken. Because setting the record straight seems central to the book’s aim, providing clear and accessible references ought to have been a top priority.
Nonetheless, The Passion of Bradley Manning is a good resource for anyone wishing to learn more about this brave individual before the start of his trial in February of next year. In the meantime, Bradley Manning will turn 25 on December 17; it will be his third birthday in prison. Cards and letters of support can be sent to Commander, HHC USAG, Attn: PFC Bradley Manning, 239 Sheridan Ave, Bldg 417, JBM-HH, VA 22211.