To his former Welsh classmates the soon-to-be soldier was an oddball — a whizz on computers who didn’t quite fit in
Tasker Milward school in Haverfordwest closed a week or so ago for the summer holidays, and its peeling black metal gates on July 30, 2013 opened on to an almost empty car park, the three-storey red brick and cream building nearly deserted in the warm Pembrokeshire afternoon.
In term time, 1,200 pupils mill around the grounds, representing a significant chunk of the young people in the small town of 13,000, situated at the very westernmost tip of Wales.
It is less than a decade since one of those spilling out of these gates in a red polo shirt and bottle green sweatshirt with a red dragon crest was a diminutive blond 17-year-old with a thick Oklahoma twang, just 5 feet 2 inches and weighing only 47.43 kg.
In the years since he left Tasker Milward, Bradley Manning has become arguably the highest profile whistleblower of his generation, the source of the biggest data leak in U.S. military history and will continue to be a hero to some, a traitor to others. Between 2001 and 2005, however, to his Welsh classmates he was just Bradley, the oddball who was a whizz on computers but didn’t quite fit in, who liked political arguments in class, whose mum made “brilliant” beefburgers after school.
Manning today finds himself at the heart of a quite extraordinary episode in U.S. diplomatic, military and legal history. The account of what took him, in less than five years, from the computer club of a west Wales secondary school to U.S. military custody accused of trying to help al-Qaeda attack America may be one of the remarkable aspects of the young Army private’s story.
Manning doesn’t hold a British passport and doesn’t consider himself to be a U.K. citizen, but he is unquestionably half Welsh (the British Foreign Office, notably, has stressed he is “British by descent“). Though he was born in the U.S., his parents met when Brian Manning, a U.S. naval intelligence analyst, was stationed in the very southwest tip of Wales; Susan Manning, then Fox, was a local girl from Haverfordwest. An older sister, Casey, was born in Wales; Bradley followed in 1987 after his parents had returned to the tiny Oklahoma town of Crescent where Brian took up a job in a car rental firm. The marriage was not a success, and in 2001, after Brian walked out, Susan returned to her home town with her children.
His new school was around the size of his entire home town, and friends from that time recall a complicated boy who never quite fit, didn’t get the Welsh humour, was hotheaded and unpredictable and sometimes bullied. “An American at a Welsh school is always going to stick out, isn’t he?” his friend James Kirkpatrick has said. “And his personality is unique, extremely unique. Very quirky, very opinionated, very political, very clever.” Manning’s mother and extended family still live in and around Haverfordwest; they have largely withdrawn from the media and campaigners since the early days of his detention.
Those who have examined closely Manning’s time in Haverfordwest, however, are clear that even while a young teenager there were signs of the young man he was to become. Tim Price spent 10 months talking to Manning’s family members, friends and former teachers as research for a play, the Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, staged last year by the National Theatre of Wales, and remains close to Manning’s mother.
“The people who knew Bradley when he was in Wales say he was an incredibly bright young guy who was also incredibly thoughtful,” says Mr. Price. While still at school he built an early social media website called Angeldyne, “and there were stories on there written by a young Bradley Manning that were not written by your average teenager, a story about Dr. David Kelly [a British government scientist who died in mysterious circumstances following a political scandal], for example. He was an unusual teenager, very politically engaged.” Vicky Moller, who runs a local campaign in support of the soldier, says former teachers have told her of a student who was “highly intelligent, engaged in long political discussions, had a questioning mind”. Mr. Moller feels that the Welsh education system — which she says focuses on “civil awareness and a moral approach to the human role in society” — may even have contributed to the actions that Manning would later take.
‘Seemed permanently frustrated with world’
However bright and engaged, he does not seem to have been particularly happy while in Haverfordwest. School friends have said they didn’t know at the time that Manning was gay, and on leaving school after his GCSE leaving exams, he returned to live with his father and new stepmother, with the promise of a job in software.
But neither the job nor the new family dynamic worked out, and within a year he was sleeping on friends’ couches or in his pickup truck, making ends meet through casual jobs. “Bradley seems always to have been desperate to be wherever he wasn’t,” says Mr. Price. “He seemed like a guy who was permanently frustrated with the world.” By October 2007, dreaming of the university future it offered through a military scholarship, Manning had enlisted in the U.S. Army.
It may seem a curious decision for the 20-year-old — now openly gay and, say friends, increasingly politicised — and indeed his military career seems to have soured very quickly. Within a month of arriving at his first posting he was on the brink of expulsion; peers have described bullying so severe Manning wet himself on more than one occasion.
A short posting to upstate New York was happier; he met his first serious boyfriend Tyler Watkins, a student at Boston’s Brandeis university, and through him became involved in the Boston hacker community.
But once Manning had been posted to an isolated military base in the Iraqi desert in October 2009, that relationship, too, would quickly disintegrate. Forward Operating Base Hammer was an isolated, depressing place where morale was rock bottom and security slipshod.
Increasingly disillusioned with the U.S. mission, Manning’s behaviour deteriorated, culminating in his punching a female officer in the face and being told he would be demoted and discharged. Within days he had contacted the notorious hacker Adrian Lamo, writing: “If you had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day, seven days a week for eight-plus months, what would you do?”
The rest has been rehearsed exhaustively during an eight-week trial. In Haverfordwest on July 30, 2013, views on his actions, however, were mixed.
“My view is that he shouldn’t have done it,” said David Thomas, visiting from nearby Swansea. “He took an oath. How naive was he?” To Callum Downes, manning a collection stall for a soldiers’ charity called Afghan Heroes, however, the issue was more nuanced. “Nobody should leak secrets that will let an enemy to get the upper hand, but the government should not keep secrets from its people. All I know is, I have a couple of friends who are out there, and they hate it when they are kept in the dark.” — © Guardian News & Media 2013