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Exclusive Book Excerpt: The Bradley Manning/Karen Silkwood Connection | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

Exclusive Book Excerpt: The Bradley Manning/Karen Silkwood Connection

After nearly ten months pretty much in the dark—often literally, in near-solitary confinement in the Quantico brig—Pvt. Bradley Manning finally received massive mainstream media attention last week. Harsh prison conditions, including forced nudity, for the man accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks finally drew widespread condemnation on the editorial pages of major newspapers and other news outlets, and from many others.

Activists and bloggers had raised the issue for months to little avail until Hillary Clinton’s chief State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, joined them, leading to Crowley’s forced exit—and sparking widespread outrage.

But how much do we know about how Manning, his legal case and incarceration reached this point? Most people still know little. My book Bradley Manning: Truth and Consequences—the first book about him—was published yesterday as an e-book here and print here. Below is the first excerpt from the book .

Bradley E. Manning was born on December 17, 1987, in Crescent, Oklahoma, a town of a little more than a thousand people in the central part of the state. If the name of the town sounds familiar it’s probably because it was once the site of the Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel processing facility that became famous thanks to Karen Silkwood, a young technician and union activist there who informed the Atomic Energy Commission about radiation hazards at the plant in the summer of 1974. Frustrated by the lack of response, she decided to leak documents to a New York Times reporter. After a union meeting in the town’s Hub Cafe on November 13, 1974, she left to meet him in Oklahoma City.

She never got there. Silkwood died when her car struck a culvert, and the cause has been debated ever since. The crash was portrayed ambiguously in the 1983 film Silkwood (starring Meryl Streep and Cher in Oscar-nominated roles). Did Silkwood simply doze off? Or was her car rammed from behind by a Kerr-McGee goon? Friends claimed she had received several threatening phone calls that autumn. The documents and binder intended for the Times reporter, perhaps in her Honda at the time of the crash, were never found. In any event, her death brought significant attention to problems at the plant, including the misplacing of 44 to 66 pounds of plutonium. Kerr-McGee closed the site in 1975 and Crescent’s population has dropped by about one-quarter since.

Crescent residents still argue about Silkwood today: Hero or political malcontent? Straight or gay? Murder or accident? And what exactly was in her “leak”?

A couple of decades after Silkwood’s death, Manning grew up with his family out in the countryside in a two-story house near the end of a gravel road. As a technician for five years in the Navy in the 1970s, Brian Manning was stationed for a time at Cawdor Barracks, a U.S. base near Haverfordwest in Wales. There he met Susan Fox, who lived nearby. After marriage, they moved to Crescent, from where Brian commuted to his tech job with Hertz Rent-a-Car in Oklahoma City. Susan gave birth to a daughter, Casey, and then in 1987, Bradley arrived.

Since Brian Manning had to spend a lot of time away from home, his son learned to fend for himself. Neighbors who watched Bradley grow up told reporter Denver Nicks for a profile that his father “was just real demeaning” or words to that effect. Former friends of the boy say he developed a reputation for being a “quiet but not exactly anti-social kid.” Sometimes he hacked into computer games. Longtime friend Jordan Davis later told NBC that he was someone who “often got under his classmates’ skin.”

Bradley went to Crescent schools from kindergarten through eighth grade. Slight of build, he played the saxophone in a band, avoided sports and was a good student for the most part. He was outspoken about government and religion and would get into arguments in class. On religion, Bradley stood out from his peers in the Bible Belt of Oklahoma in openly mocking religion. Former classmates recall he would refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance, presumably because of the “under God” part of the Pledge. And, although he was raised Catholic, he claimed he never believed a word of it.

Just into the first semester of eighth grade, his father came home and told his mother that he wanted a divorce. This inspired Bradley to tell Davis and another pal that he was gay. Then he moved with his mother to Wales.

In Haverfordwest, he was not comfortable with telling others that he was gay and became more introverted, quiet at school when not irritable. A fellow student, James Kirkpatrick, found Manning to be “different and interesting,” according to Ed Caesar in a story about Bradley’s years in Wales for The Sunday Times of London. Manning would show off his computer expertise, a skill that Kirkpatrick found to be “awesome.” Everything that made bullies want to pick on the undersized Manning made Kirkpatrick interested in being his friend.

“He stuck out,” Kirkpatrick told Caesar. “Very quirky, very opinionated, very political, very clever, very articulate. He could be quite anxious and frustrated, and people used to bully him a little bit to try and get a reaction out of him… He never told me he was gay, I don’t think he told anyone. There was one boy in our year who everyone knew was gay, and he got absolutely tormented for it. I think Bradley must have seen that and thought, no thanks.”

Upon finishing high school, he returned to Oklahoma, lived with his dad and began work for a software company. Then, according to friends, his father found out he was gay and kicked him out. Bradley turned to old friend Jordan Davis for help and, after living out of a car for awhile, he stayed with Davis in Tulsa. He moved from low-wage job to low-wage job, from F.Y.E. to Incredible Pizza. He drifted to Chicago, then to Potomac, Maryland, where he moved in with an aunt. He took jobs at Starbucks and Abercrombie & Fitch, enrolled in a few community college classes and earned enough money to take a trip to Chicago for a music festival.

Not long after that, in 2007, Manning joined the military. Accounts differ on exactly why. Some friends claim he always wanted to do that, was “pro-America,” and/or wanted to take advantage of the GI Bill later on. But his father recently told PBS Frontline: “I twisted his arm and urged him as much as a father can possibly urge somebody….because he needed structure in his life. He was aimless.”

Part II of this excerpt here.

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