Chelsea Manning: I'm no "pacifist"

Manning's first statement from prison reminds us of the violence of speaking for, not with, those behind bars

Published October 9, 2013 6:36PM (EDT)

Through Chelsea Manning, we are reminded once again of the violence of speaking for, instead of with, those who are silenced in society -- in particular the incarcerated. In her first statement since beginning her sentence in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Manning intervened in a narrative forming around her, to which she feels personally alienated.

While antiwar activists and well-meaning liberals jump to honor the whistle-blower with peace awards -- even accepting awards on the soldier's behalf -- Manning stated that she rejected this prevailing "pacifist" narrative surrounding her actions.

Writing specifically about receiving in absentia the 2013 Sean MacBride peace award, which was accepted on Manning’s behalf by Ann Wright, a retired army colonel and prominent peace activist, Manning wrote that she was flattered but, frankly, disagreed.

In a typically articulate open letter passed to the Guardian, Manning wrote:

From my perspective at least, it's not terribly clear to me that my actions were explicitly done for "peace." I don't consider myself a "pacifist," "anti-war," or (especially) a "conscientious objector." Now -- I accept that there may be "peaceful" or "anti-war" implications to my actions -- but this is purely based on your subjective interpretation of the primary-source documents released in 2010-2011... I'm a "transparency advocate" I feel that the public cannot decide what actions and policies are or are not justified if they don’t even know the most rudimentary details about them and their effects.

Manning stresses the "disconnect" she feels between the public narrative emerging (such as the acceptance on her behalf of a peace award) and how she personally frames and defends her actions in passing documents to WikiLeaks.

Once again, the whistle-blower serves as an eloquent example of the dangers of speaking for the silenced. In doing so, one ignores the conditions by which they are silenced, opts instead to act in a representative role without appropriate consent, and thus silences the silenced (in this case the imprisoned) further.

As I wrote, before Manning publicly stated that she identified as female and chose to go by "Chelsea" instead of "Bradley," that up until Manning's own public statement on this matter, even well-meaning activists were enacting a certain violence on the detained soldier: Manning's gender identity -- in the public sphere -- was (until she pronounced otherwise) properly indeterminate. Making determinate statements about Manning's gender identity prior to her public statement ignored Manning's state of isolation, her inability to speak for herself outside of being a defendant in a court-martial. As I wrote at the time, and feel bears repeating in light of Manning's statement this week:

The court (and media) have focused on Manning qua traitor, or qua torture victim, qua hero and other broad categories and roles relating to military judicial processing and media storytelling... Manning as a person — and this is the true horror of the whistle-blower’s ordeal — has remained a strictly unknown quantity. Removed from society, kept regularly for 23 hours straight in a darkened cell, isolated, permitted only to speak publicly through the complicated, highly attenuated lens of courtroom testimony.

And once again, we see that speaking on behalf of the imprisoned Manning (who notes in her most recent statement that she has "limited access with the outside world") perpetuates the same violence. Contrary to some popular protest chants, we are not Chelsea Manning, nor were we Bradley Manning. Instead of pushing for awards and accolades for the whistle-blower that frame Manning's politics without her consent, we should be fighting for conditions wherein Manning and all political prisoners can be free and speak for themselves.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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