Bradley was adrift, which in his father’s view, at least gave them something in common. “You know, I was going nowhere when I was your age,” he told Bradley. To Brian’s mind, the military had set him straight: “Everything’s been fine since.” Bradley had no desire whatsoever to enlist, said Brian. “I spent weeks and weeks and weeks talking to him, encouraging him, because this, you know, falls back to my days,” he told me. “I finally convinced Bradley to talk to the Army recruiter.”
From his barracks in Fort Drum, Bradley concocted a more satisfying story for ZJ—on the web, he controlled the narrative. “somehow one of my resumes ended up in an army recruiters’ hands … and came knocking at my door.”
Either way, Bradley followed in his father’s footsteps, and in 2008, he graduated from intel school, just as Brian had. “I was as happy as a father could be. I was so proud. And patting myself on the back, saying, ‘I made the right decision in doing this,’ ” he told me.
Then, having set him on course, Brian dropped out of his son’s life again. “I didn’t hear one word from him when he was in Fort Drum. So I never knew exactly when he went to Afghanistan. I’m sorry—Iraq. I didn’t even know that he’d gone.”
Bradley entered the Army with a plan. He was going to use the system and not vice versa. The Army would pay for college. He’d “get credentials so creepy conservatives can’t attack me.” But the Army had its own agenda. Bradley believed in the mission, but the Army seemed creepy to him, like a brainwashing cult intent on breaking him down, “correcting every eyetwitch,” he wrote. To begin, it set out to suppress his digital self. “the army took me, a web dev, threw me into a rigid schedule, removed me from my digital self,” he wrote to ZJ. “The army … threw me in the forests of Missouri for 10 weeks with an old M-16 Reagan-era load-bearing equipment, and 50 twanging people hailing from places like Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi … joy,” he told ZJ, and later added, “what the hell did I put myself through?”
Manning was desperate to escape Army life, even for a few hours, as he told ZJ. And on weekends, he would slip out from under the Army’s watchful eye. He road-tripped to Boston, where he fell in with a friendlier crowd, some of whom were gay. Manning, who’d been rewriting video-game code since he was a teenager, met intense, idealistic young programming wizards, many from M.I.T., a school he’d dreamed of attending. They styled themselves “ethical hackers.” They were awkward, proudly unbathed young coders who nonetheless gave off the cool vibe of people sure of their power. They didn’t damage the digital systems they sneaked into, though they could have. We can “bend networks to do practically anything,” one hacker told me.
In Boston, Manning found another escape. He met Tyler Watkins, a neuroscience major at Brandeis University—another science nerd—and fell in love: “he’s so zany and cute,” he told ZJ. “he bought me a dozen roses, and i bought us matching equality bracelets to wear” for Valentine’s Day. From Fort Drum, Manning obsessed about every detail of the long-distance romance. At 1:18 a.m. one Monday in March 2009, he confided in ZJ.
“I discovered something about my boyfriend tonight,” Manning wrote. “We took a quiz together … well, when it came to who is most important [person] to our lives, i answered with his name.”
Watkins didn’t reciprocate.
“His response was god,” Manning wrote.
“Oh dear,” said ZJ.
“i just hope itll be okay, because i love him.”
For Manning, nothing was okay. In October 2009, he arrived at Forward Operating Base Hammer, a dusty backwater 40 miles from Baghdad. There, Manning felt more isolated than ever—“it’s awfully stressful, lonely.” Intel analysts sometimes worked fourteen-to-fifteen-hour stretches in “a dimly lit room crowded to the point you cant move an inch without having to quietly say ‘excuse me sir,’ ‘pardon me sergeant major,’ ” he wrote. “cables trip you up everywhere, papers stacked everywhere …” Usually, there was a large central TV screen where an analyst could watch the war play in endless loop. You could zoom in on the raw footage from helicopters or even helmet cams. At times it felt like watching nonstop snuff films. “It’s groundhog day,” Manning wrote: every day the same. Later, his supervisors said he displayed dissociative behavior, his mind in one place and his body in another—but that was the nature of the job. An intel analyst sat at his work station and targeted the enemy, reducing a human being to a few salient points. Then he made a quick decision based on imperfect information: kill, capture, exploit, source. Any illusions Manning had about saving lives quickly vanished. At one point, he went to a superior with what he believed to be a mistake. The Iraqi Federal Police had rounded up innocent people, he said. Get back to work, he was told. “I was never noticed,” he later said.