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Bradley Manning’s Army of One

“Aww,” ZJ responded sympathetically.

“I’m okay,” he said bravely.

Two months later, Manning shipped out to Iraq with a top security clearance, his multiple identities held close inside him. There was abundant evidence that Manning was having trouble keeping it together psychologically, but the Army brushed aside doubts—it desperately needed intel analysts with Manning’s computer skills. After all, the Army was wired; in fact, the whole government had never been more networked, a development that had been pushed partly by the desire to improve information-sharing and shorten reaction time after 9/11. Much of the war was fought remotely; triggers were pulled by people in Langley, Virginia, or outside Las Vegas or field offices near Baghdad, where Manning was eventually posted. Military engagement had turned into a video game—but with real bullets. Manning was built for this sort of combat. In the modern Army, Manning’s skill set made him a highly useful soldier, and a dangerous one.

In Iraq, the torments Manning suffered at the hands of his fellow soldiers, his loneliness and concern over his gender, and the hours and hours he would spend in the airless intel office watching the brutal inner workings of the war bore down on him. He was unmoored in a way he hadn’t been before: angrier, less afraid, more certain of what was good and what was evil, and more compelled to act on this dawning righteousness. It was while in Iraq that Manning came across WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange—a charismatic authority figure who, far from rejecting him, as had so many others, took a passionate interest in him and what he had to contribute. Manning had an awakening—and he became, says the U.S. govern­ment, a traitor.

It was Bradley Manning’s father who pushed him to join the military. The afternoon I reached Brian Manning, he was at home in Oklahoma City, in a room in his ranch house that Bradley had briefly used as a bedroom. He’s out of work, his job at Hertz outsourced after 23 years. He’s in the midst of a second divorce, though on advice of counsel he’d refused to move out. Brian wanted to tell me about Bradley, though it was quickly clear his son was a mystery to him, and one he’d never been particularly interested in penetrating. Still, he wanted me to know that he’d tried to save his son, as a father would.

Physically, Bradley bears a certain resemblance to his father—both are “petit,” as Brian put it—but in other ways they couldn’t have been more different. Growing up, Brian was a “party animal.” He was raised in Chicago and left home when he was 17, commencing an epic sequence of benders that ended one Monday morning in 1974, when, on the heels of another drunken weekend, a 19-year-old Brian Manning found himself at a Navy recruiting office. The Navy trained him as an intel analyst, gave him secret clearance, and shipped him to Wales, where he married the first girl he met, a friendly, easygoing, semi-literate Welsh woman two years his senior.

After five years, Brian quit the service. He eventually took his wife and 6-year-old daughter to a dusty stretch of Oklahoma four miles from Crescent, a tiny conservative community with an Evangelical bent. He had five acres, pigs, chickens, and a big garden, and at first he and his wife enjoyed living like farmers. But then Brian’s priorities took another turn. He’d started a career in IT and was determined to climb a few rungs up the corporate ladder. By the early nineties, Brian was traveling frequently overseas for Hertz, leaving his family behind. “For me, it was a good career move,” he said.

For Bradley, who was born in 1987, eleven years after his sister, his father sometimes seemed like a stranger. “One time, I came home after six weeks away and Bradley [then 3 or 4] didn’t recognize me,” Brian said. Bradley excelled at school, an A student and a math and science whiz who won the school’s science fair three years running. He did make a few friends among the smarter crowd, though in his father’s mind, Bradley was a loner who refused to make an effort, which perplexed his sociable father. “He’d get off the school bus, and he’d either go upstairs … or be downstairs on the computer,” he explained. “Basically, to put it in a nutshell, Bradley never showed any interest in anything outside [the house].” By the late nineties, Brian had essentially moved overseas for his job. “I’d call home every day and talk for a few minutes with my wife, but I don’t think I ever talked to Bradley, because usually he was busy on the computer doing something.”