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README.txt: A Memoir, by Chelsea Manning

I picked up Chelsea Manning’s new book README.txt: A Memoir at the library on a whim, and I’m glad I did, as I've found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. You probably know the basics of her story: while still living as a male in 2010, she used her position as an intelligence analyst in the US Army to download hundreds of thousands of diplomatic and military documents relating to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which she then shared with the world. She was caught, charged and convicted to 35 years in prison. At the beginning of her sentence, she came out as transgender and fought to be allowed to transition. In 2017, President Obama commuted her sentence.

With stolen documents and potential exposed secrets in the news, and as someone with a transgender granddaughter, the book called out to me.

She’s a good writer, and her account of her life before all this happened is engaging, especially as it intersects with some of the historical events of her youth. She grew up in Crescent, a small town just north of Oklahoma City, where she and her older sister had to deal with parents who drank, and a father who could be violent. She describes their politics, such as they were, as a sort of conservative libertarianism, suspicious of government, and her description of the roots of their thinking seemed to paint a direct line to the dangerous and deluded anti-government MAGA crowd of today:

What really bothered him, and a lot of people like him...was that the government had killed people, including women and children, in Waco, Texas, during their botched intervention there in 1993, when I was six. The words Waco, David Koresh, Janet Reno, and ATF left most of us with a bitter taste. Our community shared a pervasive fear of the feds coming in again and interfering in our lives, taking away our firearms, going from house to house and forcing a new way of life on conservative, working-class people. I don’t think people who are not from that part of the world understand just what a formative event the stand-off at Waco was, or that it still feels like recent, urgent history to many.

The following year, when she was seven, she heard a loud boom outside. It was the explosion, thirty miles away, of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, where rightwing terrorist Timothy McVeigh had set off an explosive mix of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals in a rented Ryder truck. 168 people died, including women and 19 children. Manning learned at a young age that violence could be random and could come from many sources.

She writes a lot about grappling with her sexuality in her childhood, sneaking into her older sister’s room to try makeup and clothing. In her early teens, she would steal makeup and women's clothing from local stores, bring them home to try them on, and then throw it all away to avoid getting caught. She was a computer geek and was soon engaging in the online chatrooms of AOL and elsewhere on the budding internet, where she was able to explore her sexuality more freely.

She was a short and slight young man. Her father was derisive of her for not being manly enough. She was teased in school, and once nearly expelled from school, as ‘homosexual sex’ was still a criminal offense in Oklahoma, and the rumors about her caused school officials to investigate.

But she was also tough. After high school she took off for Chicago to get away from her family, and there went through a bout of homelessness. Her exploring as a male of the gay scene there resulted in instances of trading sex for money or shelter, and of drug use. She managed to pull herself out of that situation through the help of an aunt in the Washington DC area, who took her in and helped her start attending college. But despite her considerable computer skills even at that age, she was struggling to find a career. The military ultimately seemed the answer, with a side benefit of a temporary rapprochement with her father, who was supportive of his ‘son’s’ efforts to man up and pull his life together.

Her success in the military led her (though still outwardly a him, and constrained by the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy of the era) to her position in Iraq as an intelligence analyst. It was there that she became increasingly angered and disillusioned by what she saw: a United States policy that had little to do with helping the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, and everything to do with trying to make it look like we were ‘winning.’ She once asked a press officer about the seemingly random way things were classified and declassified:

His reply—an honest, succinct one—has lingered in my mind: the classification system exists wholly in the interests of the US government, so if it’s in the interest of public affairs to declassify anything, we will. In other words, he seemed to say, the classification system doesn’t exist to keep secrets safe, it exists to control the media. I realized that not only did I not think this stuff needed to be secret, neither did the higher-ups, at least not when it suited them. In that instant, I began to consider whether the public deserved to have the same information that I did.

She came to believe that if the public could only see the truth about what was happening in Afghanistan and Iraq, it could make a huge difference in US policy.

All the stories in the book are told well: how she downloaded the documents and smuggled them back to the US; her race against a deadline to upload them using a Barnes & Noble free internet (and I can personally attest from my days working for B&N how slow and spotty the connection is!) before her flight back to Iraq; her trial and imprisonment; and her coming to grips with her identity as a woman and her journey to fulfill that truth.