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Bradley Manning: Rich Man's War, Poor (Gay) Man's Fight

Larry Goldsmith

A poor, young gay man from the rural South joins the U.S. Army under pressure from his father, and because it's the only way left to pay for a college education. He is sent to Iraq, where he is tormented by fellow soldiers who entertain themselves watching "war porn" videos of drone and helicopter attacks on civilians. He is accused of leaking documents to Wikileaks and placed in solitary confinement, where he has been held for more than a year awaiting a military trial.  The President of the United States, a former Constitutional law professor lately suffering amnesia about the presumption of innocence, declares publicly that "he broke the law."  The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Amnesty International, and the American Civil Liberties Union express grave concern about the conditions of his imprisonment, and the spokesman for the U.S. State Department is forced to resign after calling it "ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid." A letter signed by 295 noted legal scholars charges that his imprisonment violates the Eighth Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment and the Fifth Amendment guarantee against punishment without trial, and that procedures used on Manning "calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality" amount to torture. 

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Human Rights Campaign, having invested millions lobbying for "gays in the military," have no comment.  Of course not.  Bradley Manning is not that butch patriotic homosexual, so central to the gays-in-the-military campaign, who Defends Democracy and Fights Terrorism with a virility indistinguishable from that of his straight buddies. He is not that pillar of social and economic stability, only incidentally homosexual, who returns home from the front to a respectable profession and a faithful spouse and children.

No, Bradley Manning is a poor, physically slight computer geek with an Oklahoma accent.  He is, let us use the word, and not in a negative way, a sissy.  Having grown up in a dysfunctional family in a small town in the South, he is that lonely, maladjusted outsider many gay people have been, or are, or recognize, whether we wish to admit it or not.  He broke the law, the President says.  And he did so--the liberal press implies, trying terribly hard to temper severity with compassion--because he wasn't man enough to deal with the pressure.  He did so because he's a sissy and he couldn't put up with the manly rough-and-tumble that is so important to unit cohesion, like that time three of his buddies assaulted him and instead of taking it like a good soldier he peed in his pants.  And then of course he was so embarrassed he threw a hissy fit and sent Wikileaks our nation's most closely guarded secrets, like some petulant teenage girl who gets her revenge by spreading gossip.  This is, of course, the classic argument about gays and national security--they'll get beat up or blackmailed and reveal our secrets.  And NGLTF, Lambda, and HRC, with their impeccably professional media and lobbying campaign, based on the best branding and polls and focus groups that money could buy, have effectively demolished that insidious stereotype. 

They have demolished it by abandoning Bradley Manning. 

Why was Bradley Manning in the U.S. Army in the first place?  Why does anyone join the U.S. Army nowadays?  Perhaps a few join out of a sincere if misguided idealism that they are truly going to defend freedom and democracy.  But if that were commonly the case, one would expect to see a certain number of the more affluent classes, those who never stop preaching the need to defend democracy and freedom by military means, eager to enlist.  There would be at least a few Bush and Cheney children fighting on the bloody ground of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Dick Cheney, of course, famously explained that he declined to fight in Vietnam--and invoked the privilege of the student deferment five times to avoid being drafted--because he "had better things to do."  The draft is now a thing of the past, and the vast majority of those in the U.S. military are there precisely because they do not have better things to do.  That is to say, there are few other opportunities available.  The official national unemployment rate, now at 9.1 percent, masks a rate more than twice that figure for young people generally and more than three times that rate among young black men.  Decent jobs are difficult to get, of course, without a college education.  The U.S. manages, in the midst of an international economic crisis, to spend half a billion dollars every day on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, but the federal and state governments have drastically cut funding for education, and public as well as private universities have reacted to funding cuts with astronomical increases in tuition and fees.  Publicly-funded financial assistance to poor students is a thing of the past--except as part of a military recruitment package.

Bradley Manning wanted an education.  He also wanted to get away from his family and out of his small town.  Military recruiters do not spend much time in middle-class neighborhoods.  They seek out those like Bradley Manning:  poor, isolated teenagers dazzled by the slick brochures, the cool technology, the lofty rhetoric of duty and honor, and the generous promises--or who see right through the hype but know they have no other option.  The military does not discriminate solely on the basis of sexual preference.  In its recruitment it has always observed the time-honored and deeply discriminatory precept of "Rich man's war, poor man's fight."

This is the club that NGLTF, Lambda, and HRC would have gay people join.  Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether the club is a defender of freedom and democracy or an imperialist killing machine.  It is in either case an institution that sends the Bradley Mannings of the world, and not the Dick Cheneys, to be killed or maimed--killing or maiming the Bradley Mannings, and not the Dick Cheneys, on the other side.  Whatever collective psychosexual hangups or perverse ideological interests have prevented it from openly accepting homosexuals (or, not so long ago, women, or African-Americans in integrated units), it is an institution whose fundamental design is to send poor people to die defending the interests of the affluent. 

We did not need Bradley Manning to tell us that the military is an institution in defense of a class society. But his case does uniquely reveal a seldom-acknowledged disjuncture between modern LGBT politics, based as it is on the individualizing concepts of "gay identity" and "equal rights," and the way in which political power continues to be exercised through social relationships of class. It was a complex combination of factors--a lack of economic and educational opportunities, and the absence of a community and culture where he could be himself as a gay man--that led Bradley Manning to where he is now. These factors cannot be separated into the neat, discrete categories of single-issue politics. Organizations like NGLTF, Lambda Legal, and HRC would like to pretend that Bradley Manning's case is not a "gay issue," or worse, remain silent because they know that it is indeed a gay issue, one that threatens to undermine their carefully-crafted plea for admittance to the military. Addressing it as a gay issue would mean looking critically not only at the specific discriminatory policy of the military, but also at the very purpose of the military. It would mean taking a good close look at the patriotic rhetoric of "equal rights" to serve in an "all-volunteer" military, whose purpose is to defend "freedom" and "democracy," where LGBT people can be just as "virile" in carrying out organized killing as their heterosexual counterparts. It would mean considering how such rhetoric hides unpleasant truths about economic domination in our world, understanding how such domination relies on structures of power embedded in social relations of class, race, and gender, and recognizing that these structures cannot be addressed individually, but must be attacked simultaneously. Organizations like NGLTF, Lambda Legal, and HRC that define "LGBT rights" as a single issue divorced from such considerations abandon the Bradley Mannings of the world not just to psychological torture by Presidential edict, but at the entrances to universities barred to those without money, at the military recruiting stations that have replaced the financial aid offices, and at the bases where soldiers, when not engaged in killing the declared enemy, learn to entertain themselves by bullying each other and watching war porn.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Larry Goldsmith

Larry Goldsmith is a historian and a former reporter for Gay Community News (Boston, Massachusetts), and has been active in anti-war, labor, and LGBT organizations since the late 1970s. He lives in Mexico City, and teaches at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and El Colegio de México. He can be reached at

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