The whistleblower’s voice

Photo courtesy: William Hennessy Jr, BBC.CO.UK

I AM not sure how I expected Bradley Manning to sound, but somehow I did not expect him to sound so matter-of-fact.

Ever since his name began appearing in print, we had come to know of Manning as a shaky soul: troubled, prone to tantrums, a weak soldier who had blundered into the role of a whistleblower. Rolling Stone summarised the overriding portrayal emerging out of many media narratives quite efficiently, describing it as that of a “fragile, damaged, weak individual — an emotional basket case who should never have been deployed to begin with, let alone given a top security clearance”.

So when I finally got around to listening to the leaked audio of Manning’s statement in court, it was quite a surprise how he came across.

He was collected. His voice was steady throughout the 60-plus minutes it took him to read the statement (see transcript at the bottom of this post). He didn’t seem to be particularly overawed by his surroundings, or the fact he was reading one of the most crucial statements he would ever make in his life.

He begins calmly, with no discernible nervousness: “I wrote this statement in confinement. So. […] start.”

In much of the audio, Manning appears similarly composed. He sounded at home in the Maryland courtroom. His voice is young — given the world of mature powers opposing him, it is quite easy to forget he is only 25, being tried for actions he undertook when he was just 21 — and there is an earnestness about it that is quite appealing. There are many occasions when he mashes together syllables and swallows words, but he comes across as intelligent and articulate.

After dealing with personal facts detailing his entry into the military and his job as “35 Foxtrot”, or intelligence analyst, Manning progresses methodically  in 10-odd sections through how he came to know of WikiLeaks, and the “facts regarding” the “unauthorised storage and disclosure of” the material he uploaded to WL, including the Apache helicopter video and the diplomatic cables.

It is almost as if he is reading out a story written in first person.

Not his own, but someone else’s: there is a curious detachment — a certain composure even when he reads out incidents which must have been painful for him — that gives the impression he is just someone asked to read out the story, not the real protagonist.

You get a sense of this ‘storyreading voice’ when Manning narrates his first days in the military, approximately 3 minutes 30 seconds into his statement:

AIT [Advanced Individual Training] was an enjoyable experience for me. Unlike BCT [Basic Combat Training], where I felt different than the other soldiers, I fit in and did well. I preferred the mental challenges of reviewing a large amount of information from various sources and trying to create useful, or “actionable,” products. I especially enjoyed the practice of analysis through the use of computer applications and methods I was familiar with.

Manning’s voice does not alter when he speaks about the ‘Collateral Murder’ incident — which, as per his own statement, he had found disturbing enough to act on (listen at 38:30 of the audio):

At one point in the video, there is an individual on the ground attempting  to crawl to safety. The individual is seriously wounded. Instead of calling for medical attention to the location, one of the AWT crew members verbally asked for the wounded person to pick up a weapon so he would have a reason to engage. For me, this seems similar to a child torturing ants with a magnifying  glass.

Manning goes on in the same vein, systematically, almost clinically, telling his story without drama. If he is a “hysterical”, “suicidal” “basket case”, there is little to indicate that in his voice. He manages to present himself well, coming across as an intelligent, idealistic, sensitive, clear-headed human being, who knew exactly what he was doing.

Dissections of what Manning said in court have been plenty, but how he said what he said is equally important. It has the power to transform the image we have of Manning.

SEE ALSO: The Framing of Bradley Manning

Versions of Manning audio available on Press Freedom Foundation

PFC Manning’s Statement Redacted

Illustration courtesy: William Hennessy Jr, BBC.co.uk
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