A Portrait of the Mind of Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning said he was sorry for hurting the United States during his sentencing hearing at Fort Meade on Wednesday, saying, "I only wanted to help people, not hurt people." But hours of testimony presented earlier by his defense team showed that wasn't Manning's only reason.

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Bradley Manning said he was sorry for hurting the United States during his sentencing hearing at Fort Meade on Wednesday, saying, "I only wanted to help people, not hurt people." But hours of testimony presented earlier by his defense team showed that wasn't Manning's only reason for downloading thousands of classified documents and giving them to WikiLeaks. Manning, they said, felt isolated, and showed signs of mental instability, suffered from gender identity disorder, had a mild type of Asperger's, and showed symptoms of slight fetal alcohol syndrome. Capt. David Moulton, a Navy psychiatrist, said Manning was in a "post-adolescent idealistic phase," which is a line from Clueless.

The goal of the defense testimony, of course, is to evoke sympathy in the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, in order to get a lighter sentence. Some of the testimony seemed more likely to do the trick than others. Nevertheless, it offered a fascinating portrait of who Manning was before his leak. The defense suggested there were three things affecting his mental state that influenced his decision: that he was a naive idealistic kid, that he had biological mental disorders, that he was that he was transgender.

The last produced the most arresting evidence. In an April 24, 2010 email to his supervisor at the time, Master Sgt. Paul Adkins, Manning confessed he was transgender, and that he joined the Army, basically, to "get rid of it." He included this selfie, in which he's dressed as a female with long blonde hair. The subject line was "My Problem." The email said,

This is my problem. I’ve had signs of it for a very long time. It’s caused problems within my family. I thought a career in the military would get rid of it. It’s not something I seek out for attention, and I’ve been trying very, very hard to get rid of it by placing myself in situations where it would be impossible. But, it’s not going away; it’s haunting me more and more as I get older. Now, the consequences of it are dire, at a time when it’s causing me great pain it itself…

I don't know what to do anymore, and the only "help" that seems available is severe punishment and/or getting rid of me.

Adkins had written memos in December 2009, April 2010, and May 2010 about Manning's instability. In an April 26 memo, Adkins wrote, "SPC Manning seems to create internal pressure due to unnamed conflicts he seems unwilling to discuss, and incapable of handling by himself." Manning had been unstable — prone to distant stares, reporting "an altered or dissociated state of consciousness" — and he suggested Manning see the chaplain.

In May, Adkins found Manning on the floor of a storage room, in the fetal position, near a knife and shreds of seat cushion foam. Manning had carved "I WANT" into the cushion. He couldn't say why. Manning "fluctuated during the conversation between a calm individual and one in pain." Eventually, Adkins decided to send him back to work for the last four hours of his shift.

Capt. Michael Worsley, a clinical psychologist who treated Manning over the time the memos cover, testified, "Obviously I was a therapist, but he was still guarded with me. It was one of those things where you go: who can this guy share with? Who does he have?" Worsley also said:

"Being in the military and having a gender identity issue does not go hand in hand… At this time, the military was not exactly friendly to the gay community, or anyone who held views as such. I don't know that it is friendly now, either, but it seems to be getting toward that point.

You put him in this environment — this kind of hyper-masculine environment, if you will, and with the little support and few coping skills, the pressure would have been difficult to say the least. It would have been incredible."

As Courthouse News explains, the military does not allow people who show "exhibitionism, transvestitism, voyeurism and other paraphilias" to enlist.

Worlsey is right that being in the Army before the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell was not easy for people like Manning. (Imagine being in a homophobic environment — 52 percent of Army soldiers opposed gays openly serving in a 2010 poll — in which everyone has guns.) But it's not obvious that a military judge would necessarily feel empathy for him because of that. The Army culture is all about self-control, and overcoming your personal problems to serve like everyone else.

But that wasn't the only thing affecting Manning's mental state. Moulton offered another analysis that, again, doesn't necessarily seem like it would play well with a military audience: Manning was like a dumb college kid. He said there was a "transition period" in which people hold on to the idealism of their youth. That "drives a lot of activism on college campuses, and the riots that eventually throughout history happened on campuses," he said. One tends to not find much appreciation in the military for the value or motivation of the campus activism during the Vietnam era.

It was Manning's statement itself that seemed most likely to go over well. "How on earth could I, a junior analyst, believe I could change the world for the better?" he said, showing total respect for the chain of command. "I should have worked more aggressively within the system," he said, suggesting the Army works just fine as it is. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.