A day after Bradley Manning was found guilty of 19 of 21 charges—acquitted of the grotesquely trumped-up “aiding the enemy,” but still guilty of espionage and theft for leaking documents to WikiLeaks—seems like a good time to look back at Cass McCombs’ 2011 song in the soldier’s honor. (Though, really, any day since the track debuted on Democracy Now would’ve been appropriate, as the private was enduring “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in prison.) I’ve been following Manning’s trial because I find his actions to be responsible and just, and because I find him to be personally compelling: years ago, before his Facebook page was deleted, you could go on and see a photo of a young Bradley practicing DJing in his bedroom—the caption was something like “Trying out some techno.” I remember looking at that picture and thinking that he seems totally un-unique; he could’ve been me, he could’ve been Cass. Revisiting McCombs’ song today, in this penultimate moment before the judge finally declares Manning’s fate, I’m caught up by one section in particular, an odd and dense mouthful that probably only McCombs could deliver:
Recycled from Iraq and stationed at Fort Drum
His boyfriend introduced him to Triskelion
He met the hacktivists at MIT
“Randomly hung out with some pikans”; “At last, people like me”
Each line deserves a bit of explaining, in service of what’ll ultimately be my point about Manning’s current position as a sort of dual martyr and phoenix—someone who, in the public eye, became human precisely as he was dehumanized, and emerged as a new figure entirely.
Recycled from Iraq and stationed at Fort Drum comes from an anonymous officer interviewed in 2011 by The Guardian, who encountered Manning shortly after Manning joined the army. As the officer recounts, Manning started basic training in Missouri, but he was bullied and humiliated—to the point where he pissed himself—and sent to a “discharge unit,” typically the waypoint before a failing recruit is sent home. But instead, presumably due to low enlistment, Manning was reassigned to restart basic training somewhere else, at Fort Drum in upstate New York. In the Guardian interview, the officer questioned the military’s decision, saying: “They never should have trapped him in and recycled him in. Never. Not that mess of a child I saw with my own two eyes.”
His boyfriend introduced him to Triskelion—this refers to The GLBTQSA Alliance at nearby Brandeis University, where Manning’s then-boyfriend studied. As explained in a recent Jacobin post, Manning’s gender identity played an important role in his treatment in the military, both as a gay man under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and as someone questioning his gender identity. (While he was in prison, Manning signed some letters “Breanna Manning,” which was cited as a reason to put him on restrictive “injury-prevention status”—solitary confinement. “That’s not normal,” a Sergeant testified about the letters in December. “It’s a cause for concern.”)
He met the hacktivists at MIT/ “Randomly hung out with some pikans”; “At last, people like me.” Like Triskelion—a safe space in contrast with basically everywhere else Manning was for seven years—this couplet evokes intimacy, friendship and everyday fitting in. (On the other hand, MIT now also conjures another recent, bitter “hacker” saga, of another young man who was overaggressively targeted by prosecutors—up to, and possibly provoking, his own death.) Cass McCombs’ lines are quotations from Manning’s since-deleted Facebook photo captions after a trip to a hippie co-op house. Add these lyrics up, and you’ve got a relatable twenty-something condensed into four lines.
As a song recorded while Manning was in prison, McCombs’ portrayal seems designed to make listeners sympathetic to the private’s weak position—McCombs sings the word “bully” three times. This was a necessary counterweight while Manning was secreted away, literally locked in solitary 23 hours a day. During Manning’s recent trial, though, the impression I got from reporters on the scene was that the practically cliché antihero private emerged with a presence more like your standard strongman; he did not cower, but appeared on the stand to be confident, strong, intentional. Not so much the sensitive, Facebook-posting Okie—after years in prison, that Manning is already dead—but someone with a presence befitting a supposed super-criminal. Of course, his situation is as precarious as ever; he has been found guilty of crimes that could rack up more years than a life sentence. For the next few weeks, as Manning awaits sentencing, there’s little to do but wait alongside him. And replay this song.