Bradley Manning’s Real Problem Wasn’t Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Bradley Manning’s 35-year sentence for leaking government documens is about midway between the 20 years he asked for and the 60 years that prosecutors sought. In pleading for the court’s understanding last week, Manning told Judge Col. Denise Lind that “at the time of the decision, as you know, I was dealing with a lot of issues, issues that are ongoing.”

Now there’s no question that Manning has had a hard time grappling with personal issues. He was trying to come to terms with his gender identity disorder, and he was doing so in the oppressive atmosphere of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Manning told an Army psychiatrist that he had hoped that joining the Army would rid him of his “problem” about gender identity, but instead it just grew worse.

But Bradley’s argument that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell somehow contributed to his making a bad decision is also an insult to lots of gay military personnel who served honorably before the policy’s repeal. Not to downplay the institutional homophobia of the military, but the vast majority of people who served under DADT coped with the policy without breaking the law. DADT was an evil policy, but that doesn’t make it an excuse for bad personal decisions.

The same with gender identity disorder. The military is hardly the ideal place to come to terms with being trans. “The way trans people are dealt with by the military depends greatly on the individual chain of command, the trans person’s psychological stability, how well liked they are by their command, and what sort of performer they are,” the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network notes.

Manning didn’t get the help he needed from the military to deal with his gender identity. But, again, there are trans military personnel who serve honorably under difficult circumstances.

Manning is plainly a troubled person. The odds seemed stacked against him from birth, with an alcoholic mother and a childhood filled with loneliness and neglect. That upbringing made Manning a vulnerable and tormented adult who was looking for stability. If DADT never existed and the military was fine with gender identity issues, Manning would still have been grappling with his personal issues. The environment didn’t help, but Manning’s troubles were internal.

All of this is separate from the question of whether Manning did the right thing. It’s also separate from the government’s treatment of Manning, which was shameful during his early imprisonment. 

Bradley Manning will be eligible for parole in eight years, but the government will want to keep him for the full 30 years. That will be a sad end for an unhappy man, who may never have the chance to find out who he is. But it won’t be testament to the destructive power of DADT.