The sentencing of Bradley Manning in August 2013 ended for the moment a type of social theater where many interesting and at times disturbing realities were brought to center stage. In relation to the theme of psychological diagnosis, what was fascinating was how the legal debate surrounding Manning’s reasoning for leaking the documents shifted from political to psychological discourses. Both the prosecutors and the defense, perhaps for different reasons, moved attention away from the question of the validity of his reason for releasing the documents he made available to the public to focus on his psychological status and mental reasoning capacity.
At one point in the court martial, the testimony centered on what type of diagnosis he should be given to explain his decisions, a clear example of how psychological discourse and diagnosis can be used to attempt to turn, twist, and neutralize political action into pathology. Using text from the court martial hearing, I will contrast several statements made by the psychological expert who was asked to diagnosis and evaluate Manning as to why he chose to release the classified information with Manning’s own statements as to the reasoning behind his actions. Manning’s explanation for his actions was primarily a political discourse, never once using a psychological attribution to explain why he released the documents. The discursive strategies used in the debate over Manning’s actions in his trial show us a clear contemporary example of how psychological diagnosis can be used to turn and twist political action into individual pathology. This brings to the forefront critical questions as to how diagnosis is used, by whom, and for what means?
At 21 years old, Manning enlisted in the US army and was trained as an intelligence analyst, which gave him access to classified information. From his statements, he appears to be an intelligent and sensitive young man who became increasingly upset the more he learned about how U.S. military actions were taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2010, he eventually decided to publish certain records he came across in his job, feeling that the public needed access to this information to understand better what the realities were “on the ground” in these conflict areas. He sent videos and documents to WikiLeaks, which were published later that year (after being ignored by The Washington Post and The New York Times). His most well-known video shows U.S. soldiers in Iraq speaking from an Apache helicopter targeting a group of men in a courtyard and firing on them after reporting that they had weapons. Two of the men shot down were 22-year-old Reuters photojournalist Namir Noor-Eldeen and his driver, 40-year-old Saeed Chmagh. The weapons on their shoulders (reported as Ak-47’s in the taped conversation from the helicopters) were their cameras. They were gunned down while walking with their cameras in the courtyard along with a number of other men. As the video shows, after Saeed is shot and crawling on the ground, a van stops to help him with two children in the front seat. The men from the van get out and are carrying Saeed to the van when they are blasted with another round of gunfire from the U.S. helicopters. The U.S. soldiers are overheard in the taped conversation congratulating each other. Along with this video, Manning released hundreds of documents that he considered critical for the public to see to gain a more accurate perspective of what was going on in U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Manning read a 10,000-word statement to Judge Denise Lind in a military courtroom at his providence inquiry on February 28, 2013. He explained in detail what documents he released and why he released them. In regard to his decision to submit the documents for public review in spite of knowing that it was against military regulations, Manning stated:
I believe that if the general public, especially the American public had access to the information contained in the CIDNE-I and CIDNE-A tables this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan. I also believed the detailed analysis of the data over a long period of time by different sectors of society might cause society to reevaluate the need or/ even the desire to even to engage in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations that ignore the complex dynamics of the people living in the affected environment every day. (Manning statement, p. 8, Feb, 13, 2013).
Manning goes on to explain what he saw in these documents and why he felt they were critical to release to public attention. It is a straightforward description by a young man who is upset seeing his government carrying on what he considered to be needless violence with little regard or understanding of the people whose lives they were destroying. He, like Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, Julian Assange, and many others who have taken great risks to speak out against injustice, believed the U.S. military and government should be more transparent and accountable to the public. Yet, unlike some of his predecessors, he did not release the documents while in some far away land and as result today faces decades in a U.S. prison. Manning has caused the United States military endless angst while his court martial and sentence have contributed to raising a national debate concerning the limits of freedom of speech in the United States.
In terms of the use of psychology and diagnosis in this case, it is interesting to ask why the defense and the U.S. military prosecution rather than merely debating Manning’s criminality chose at some point to shift the debate and focus on what diagnosis he was given by medical professionals? Perhaps for the defense, this was a way to argue that Manning had a personal tendency that caused him to make “bad” decisions, and for that, he should be pardoned. It seems clearer that for the government prosecution it was a way to discredit Manning’s stated reasoning for his actions and focus on his personal life to avoid a debate on what he exposed and his legitimacy in doing so. In this way, a pathological discourse was enlisted to dig up enough “dirt” on him in an attempt to shift the focus of attention from a political to a psychological nature.
Blurring Borders Between Medical and Psychological Discourses
The DSM diagnostic system arguably plays a key part in blurring the borders between medical and psychological discourse. Claims that the practice of psychological diagnosis has objective “truth” entitles the field and its professionals to self-proclaim and normalize their own expertise and authority. In contemporary health care, this blurring can be seen clearly when medical professionals with perhaps minimal psychological training per se hand out DSM diagnoses and prescribe medication for “psychological disorders.” This is illustrated in Manning’s hearing as Dr. David Moulton, a forensic psychologist from Utah testified about the “mental health” evaluations he reviewed prior to giving his own as to Manning’s psychological state and diagnosis:
Q. What was the purpose of reviewing prior evaluations and tests and other medical records?
A. I wanted to get some background regarding his prior evaluations, kind of the context which those took place, impressions regarding past diagnoses, past treatments and so forth.
Q. Is it common practice in your profession to review that type of material?
A. Absolutely, that would be quite essential for a complete forensic evaluation.
Q. Has Pfc Manning been previously evaluated by mental health professionals?
A. He has.
Q. Who was the first to evaluate Pfc Manning?
A. The first records I reviewed were from a Dr. Coralie, who saw him a couple occasions before his 18th birthday. I think that was 2005.
Q. And what type of mental health professional was Dr. Coralie?
A. From the notes it appears she’s a primary practice doctor, like a family practitioner of some type. It didn’t say on there that she was a psychiatrist.
Q. Who is the next mental health professional to evaluate Pfc Manning?
A. His name starts with an “M,” I think—you’ll have to jog my memory. Sorry.
Q. Dr. Myers?
A. Dr. Myers.
Q. Do you recall what type of doctor he was?
A. From my recollection that also appeared to be family practice doctor, some type of general practitioner. This was in Virginia in 2007, when he was living with his aunt.
Q. In general, what were the major findings that you saw from those mental health records?
A. Dr. Coralie found that he had anxiety and started him on Lexapro at a low dose. (p. 2-3)
The practice of general practitioners acting as psychiatrists is of course common in the United States, but it is noteworthy that this goes unquestioned in the hearing, which effectively normalizes it as an acceptable social practice. This blurring of professional boundaries is critical in understanding the power and investment of the increasingly unified medical and psychological fields, which has become much deeper with the introduction of managed care into all areas of “helping relations.” Diagnosis as a part of pathological discourse has become the language of exchange between the medical, psychological, and insurance economies. This can be seen in the court martial hearing as the relevance of the debate over Manning’s diagnosis goes unquestioned and DSM terminology is granted a “truth” status mirroring the modern “reality” of what occurs throughout modern medicine, social services, and mental health. By remaining unquestioned, it is normalized, and thus Manning is transformed from a political actor to a psychological subject.
From the Political to the Imaginary
Dr. Moulton agrees with previous evaluations that have diagnosed Manning with a gender identity disorder or the newer DSM-5-sanitized version called Gender Dysphoria.
Q. What type of behaviors…well, actually what symptoms do you see in gender dysphoria?
A. Gender dysphoria is the sense that one belongs in the other gender. That they were perhaps born in the wrong gender, is a common complaint, that they should be in the other gender, more comfortable in the role of the opposite gender. This is beyond just societal, typical societal stereotypes, like a man who wants to stay home and raise his kids. That would not be characteristic of that. More someone wants to be a female or a male wants to be a female, they were born in the wrong gender. And then often a desire to pass as the other gender, physically change their body into the opposite gender.
Q. In general, you described some things but what types of behaviors are seen with someone of gender dysphoria?
A. So often it presents early in childhood, and persons will often cross dress, they will often express their desire, children may even insist they are not the gender they were born. Play activities will be predominantly with the opposite gender. As far as types of play, it’s generally more stereotypical, the opposite gender, though that in isolation would not be considered part of gender identity.
Q. And how common is the disorder?
A. The consensus is there hasn’t been a large epidemiological study for quite some time. DSM sites it as between 1 and 7,000 and 1 in 30,000. There’s some other studies that show it to be more frequent. Generally those studies have been highly influenced by activism, however. 1 in 7,000 and 1 in 30,000 is the best accurate figure. (p. 8).
The fact that the judge allows the focus to become Manning’s gender identity is by itself indicative. The question becomes to what degree Manning is psychologically disturbed, and the conclusion lies in his diagnosis. This shift from political to psychological discourse relieves the U.S. military and the U.S. public from addressing the validity of his actions in breaking military law to expose what he saw as systemic human rights violations. Manning’s explanation for his actions, clearly stated in his initial address to the court, is forgotten. Instead, Manning’s subjectivity is twisted and turned from a political subject to a pathological one, the questions now centering on the degree and type of pathology rather than the merits of what he did and its validity in principle or by law. Pathologizing Manning is used as a basis to argue for his incompetence and destroy his credibility. In a more comical moment, Dr. Moulton excuses Manning from being the only sick one in the courtroom, the implication being that Manning is just a bit sicker than the rest of us.
Q. What is a personality disorder?
A. A personality disorder is a pervasive longstanding maladapted pattern of behavior, usually begins early in childhood and is present consistently throughout childhood, into adulthood in ways that interfere socially and occupationally.
Q. And what is a personality trait?
A. A personality trait make up personality disorders, certainly…Most people have some abnormal personality traits. They tend to be more prominent under periods of stress. And if they are long acting and pervasive, and there’s enough of them present, then more a diagnosis personality disorder. Stress frequently brings them on, if common scenario is, when people get very tired, you might start acting out more and feel much more mood swingy and act out more, irritability, those type of things, abnormal personality traits that would come out under stress, for example, not necessarily indicative of a personality disorder. (p. 10)
In another pathological twist by Dr. Moulton, we are told that society can rest assured that we have put the real bad guys in jail because they are also the sickest:
…personality disorder is also very prevalent in our correctional population of males that are in correctional facilities. Two-thirds to 80 percent of them have been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder. (p. 14)
In Part Two, we will see how the remainder of Pfc Manning’s court martial continued in its attempt to show that those who want to see social change must be “mentally ill.”
— Matthew Jacobson
Today’s guest contributor, Matthew Jacobson, PhD, is a writer, mental health professional, and documentary film activist who has recently moved back to the Seattle, Washington area after finishing his doctoral studies at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain.