Bradley Manning, the gay soldier charged with leaking hundreds of thousands of files to WikiLeaks, some of which were classified by the Pentagon, had his first hearing in court this weekend after 19 months in detention. His hearing is being conducted on an Army post near Washington and presided over by military officials, not a judge or jury. If he’s convicted, Manning could spend life in prison as a traitor.
Although Manning’s defense isn’t denying that he was in contact with Wikileaks, and although investigators did find a DVD of the infamous footage of a US helicopter killing 11 unarmed men in Iraq in Manning’s quarters, Manning’s defense is relying on a different angle of the case. On Saturday, his lawyers claimed that life as a gay man under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell “contributed to mental and emotional problems that should have barred him from having access to sensitive material.”
A major tenet of the defense’s argument is that many of the files leaked by Manning weren’t in fact classified, and didn’t contain information that would harm American soldiers or endanger the government (although lawyers for the prosecution disagree); the files are instead described as “rather benign.” The prosecution did, however, bring evidence into court that one of Manning’s work computers had held over 10,000 diplomatic cables, which were linked to a ‘bradley.manning’ username.
In online chat transcripts released back when Manning’s involvement with Wikileaks was first revealed, Manning confesses to his “confidant-turned-government-informant” that he’s gay along with his turning over of government materials. Parts of the chat transcripts had led some to believe that Manning suffered from gender identity disorder and/or identified as trans; one of Manning’s defense lawyers asked an investigator for the prosecution whether in the course of the investigation they had spoken to “people who believed Manning was gay or found evidence among his belongings relating to gender-identity disorder.” The prosecution remains adamant that questions about Manning’s sexual orientation or gender identity are irrelevant to the case.
“We already knew before we arrived that Pfc. Manning was a homosexual,” Graham said. Prosecutors objected several times to the questions. Kemkes responded that if the government can argue that Manning intended to leak secrets, “what is going on in my client’s mind is very important.”
At its most basic level, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell asks soldiers to lie to their fellow soldiers and superior officers while maintaining a strict moral standard of honor and loyalty in every other respect – unless of course they find out about the lie that their comrades are required to tell, in which case they have to turn their friends and comrades in despite the strict moral standard of honor and loyalty. None of this should ever compromise the intense patriotic dedication they feel towards the US or the army. When soldiers under DADT are already required to lie about their identity or conversely expose their friends in order to satisfy a wildly conflicting narrative of ethics and honor, how can we act surprised when one of them seems to experience some ethical contradictions of his own? …It’s not that this leak was some kind of karmic repercussion for the inequity of DADT, not exactly; it’s more of a chickens-come-home-to-roost moment of watching something come full circle, something ugly and complicated and ethically confusing being born from something, well, ugly, and complicated, and ethically indefensible.
It may be a long shot for Manning’s defense to argue that living under DADT put Manning in enough of a psychologically compromised position that it was really the military’s responsibility to keep him away from sensitive information, and not Manning’s responsibility to keep it confidential. But at the same time, it seems disingenuous at best and deluded at worst for the military to argue that Manning’s (or any soldier’s) sexual orientation is “irrelevant.” How “irrelevant” could it have been if Manning was obligated to keep it secret by the terms of his employment, and if refusing to actively lie about it to his comrades meant he would lose his job? Having a policy specifically denoted to prohibiting any discussion of Manning’s and other gay soldiers’ identities because doing so would somehow pose a threat to the military’s efficacy seems to imply that being gay is in fact very “relevant” to the experience of being in the military.
DADT may finally be over (for the most part), but that doesn’t mean the military can take themselves off the hook for all the years that it was in place — or ignore the way that it impacted America’s soldiers. It took over a year of imprisonment for Bradley Manning to get a public trial for what he’s accused of, and to get an actual verdict on whether he’s guilty or innocent. There’s no judicial body that’s going to hold the US military accountable for what it’s done to its own troops, gay or straight — there are Vietnam war vets still waiting for equal rights for their partners, and not many voices speaking out for them. Regardless of the verdict that Bradley Manning receives, there’s no excuse for anyone in the US military to be allowed to think of gay soldiers’ lives and identities as “irrelevant” ever again.