Biting the Hand: The Complicated Patriotism of Chelsea Manning

Written by Ava Albelo

On February 17, I had the pleasure of seeing Chelsea Manning, U.S Government whistleblower and activist, host a talk Memorial Union. Manning is not the type of figure you learn about in school, despite in 2010 being responsible for the largest leak of military information in U.S history. When she initially came out on stage, she was small and seemed a bit nervous. We all know she’s told this story hundreds of times before. Manning is a woman trying to regain her narrative, after being victim to slander and distortions concerning her crimes and character. Vilified by the government, she recognized injustice midst its frontlines and used the incoming information age to her advantage.

She started off at the very beginning of her life, detailing a turbulent childhood as a closeted kid in Oklahoma; then her move to the U.K at the age of eleven. Manning felt that she was different from the beginning, initially coming out as gay in childhood. After being kicked out of her home due to conflicts with her stepmother, and experiencing a bout of homelessness in Chicago, she joined the army in 2007. She hoped that the hyper-strict and masculine environment would quiet her emerging confusion surrounding her gender. Following completion of training, she was deployed to Iraq and joined the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. The type of work that Manning did in the U.S army was data analysis. She described interpreting data from a computer that guessed where opposing forces would be attacking next and would present the information to superior officials. 

After a certain point in her talk, she was no longer allowed to speak about the leaks that landed her in jail for seven years. We as the audience were told that Manning was not allowed to speak about anything concerning possible ongoing trials, including information on Wikileaks, the website her leaks were published on. Instead, she discussed her time in prison, especially the year she spent in solitary confinement. For months, she faced bitter loneliness and confusion concerning the press coverage of her crimes. She didn’t realize the length of coverage until someone working in the place she was being held said, “You’ve been on the news a lot lately.” After she was convicted, Manning came out as a trans woman in prison. She campaigned for gender-affirming healthcare, facing heavy blowback. One thing she emphasized was how well she got along with her fellow prisoners. They accepted her, although she admitted some didn’t understand her gender identity. The only people who treated her maliciously were the prison guards, she recounted. Eventually, under the Obama administration, her original 35-year sentence was commuted to time served. Unfortunately, in 2019, she spent a year again in prison after refusing to testify in the trial against Julian Assange, which was another subject she couldn’t comment on for legal reasons.

Towards the end of the night, the audience was permitted to ask questions. These questions were to be screened by employees to prevent the discussion of sensitive matters. When it came to be my turn to ask her something, I asked, “Today, do you consider yourself a patriotic person?” She responded to me by explaining at one point, she would have said yes. Being in the army required some sense of national pride; but after eight years of her life being lost to the criminal justice system, she no longer held that same faith. She had seen the follies of nationalism up close, and her perspective was forever altered. Rather, she suggested that the audience focused on their communities and do valuable work there. After all, she had done, working closely with her community has brought her the most satisfaction. There, we can create our own changes against a reign of systematic violence. 

Manning’s talk was a highly interesting event to attend. I walked away feeling like I had not only been introduced to an unabashedly real perspective but also educated to real consequences the government has the power to inflict.