Get ready for the horrible, honest reality of
the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan like you haven't heard it before.
For three days, March 14-16, hundreds of U.S. veterans of the two wars will
descend on Washington and testify in the "Winter Soldier" hearings
about what they really did while they were serving their country in Iraq. And
their experiences aren't pretty.
The event is inspired by the Winter Solider tribunal held in 1971 by Vietnam
War vets, including John Kerry. The name comes from a quote from Thomas Paine,
the revolutionary who rallied George Washington's troops at Valley Forge, saying:
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and sunshine
patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he
that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Paine was trying to keep Washington's army from deserting in the face of a
bitter winter and mounting defeats at the hands of the British. Members of Iraq
Veterans Against the War say the same type of courage is needed to confront
the evils unleashed by the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The problem that we face in Iraq is that policymakers
in leadership have set a precedent of lawlessness where we don't abide by the
rule of law, we don't respect international treaties," argued former U.S.
Army Sgt. Logan Laituri, who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before
being discharged as a conscientious objector. "So when that atmosphere
exists, it lends itself to criminal activity."
Laituri explained that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt in the rules
of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines. For
example, when he was stationed in Samarra, he said, one of his fellow soldiers
shot an unarmed man while he walked down the street.
"The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime as you might call
it, because the rules of engagement were very clear that no one was supposed
to be walking down the street," Laituri said. "But I have a problem with that.
You can't tell a family to leave everything they know so you can bomb the sh*t
out of their house or their city. So while he definitely has protection under
the law, I don't think that legitimates that type of violence."
Not Just Numbers
Aaron Hughes, a former member of the Illinois
National Guard who spent a year running convoys in Iraq, is getting involved
too. "We're trying to create a space for veterans to speak out and change
the rhetoric around the war," he said. "There are human beings on
both sides. There are not just numbers. That's what missing in our culture."
Hughes grew up in a basement apartment in Chicago and joined the National Guard
when he saw how successfully it provided relief during heavy flooding on the
But after being sent to Iraq, he came to see the military in a different way.
An art student at the University of Illinois at the time he was called up, Hughes
went back over the photos he took while deployed in Iraq and altered them in
an "attempt to interpret the posture assumed as a soldier/tourist in the surreal
space of Iraq." Hughes' work was been shown at the National Vietnam Veterans
Art Museum in Chicago.
"I think it's wrong, looking back at it," he said. "How can you not perceive
it as a step away from your humanity? They automatically start isolating you.
They tell you your girlfriend or your husband is not going to be there. They
tell you not to trust anyone but the military and they really start fostering
that as your sole relationship in life."
Equally Criminal Wars
The veterans also want to stress the similarities
between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The exact same units that are getting the exact same training and the exact
same orders are getting sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan," explained Perry
O'Brien, a former U.S. Army Medic who became a conscientious objector after
his tour in Afghanistan. "What we're seeing is a lot of similarities between
practices in both countries and both are equally criminal."
O'Brien even witnessed the abuse of dead bodies during his tour. "When a patient
would die, we would hear over the PA system an announcement through the clinic
saying 'Who wants to learn how to do a chest tube?' or 'Who wants to know what
a human heart looks like?'" he said. "Rather than giving the proper
treatment of the dead, the body would become a cadaver for medical practice
with no consent from the victim."
First Winter Soldier
When the first Winter Soldier hearings were held
37 years ago in 1971, the United States had reached a point in the war that
was very similar to what's going on today. Public opinion had moved decidedly
against the war. Coalition partners like Australia and New Zealand were withdrawing
their troops. The Pentagon Papers had just been released showing a long list
of official deception from Washington. And yet, the war continued with President
Richard Nixon pushing ahead with an expansion of U.S. intervention in Southeast
Asia, which included the invasion of Cambodia.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War were determined to play a role in changing
that. They gathered in Detroit to explain what they had really done when they
were deployed overseas serving their countries. They showed, through their first-person
testimony, that atrocities like the My Lai massacre were not isolated exceptions.
Among those in attendance was 27-year-old Navy Lt. John Kerry, who had served
on a Swift boat in Vietnam. Three months after the hearings, Kerry took his
case to Congress and spoke before a jammed Senate Foreign Relations Committee
hearing. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans packed the seats.
Then and Now: Kerry and Mejia
"Many very highly decorated veterans testified
to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia," Kerry told the committee, describing
the events of the Winter Soldier gathering. "It is impossible to describe to
you exactly what did happen in Detroit – the emotions in the room, and the feelings
of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the
absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do."
In one of the most famous antiwar speeches of the era, Kerry concluded: "Someone
has to die so that President Nixon won't be – and these are his words – 'the
first president to lose a war.' We are asking Americans to think about that,
because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you
ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War intend to play a similarly historic
"We have given a blanket invitation to Congress," said Camilo Mejia,
the chair of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "We hope the Congress
will give these hearings the same attention they did during the Vietnam era."
But action from politicians is only one possible outcome. Mejia says IVAW also
hopes Winter Soldier will increase the size and strength of GI Resistance against
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This event is going to empower soldiers to follow their conscience whatever
that means for them," said Mejia, who deserted the military after five months
in Iraq. "The kinds of things we're talking about are nonpartisan. They're nonpolitical.
They have to do with human being trapped in this atrocity producing situation."
Many observers believe the Army is already close
to its breaking point. Last week, top Army officials told the Senate Armed Services
Committee that it's is under serious strain and must reduce the length of combat
tours as soon as possible.
Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff said, "The cumulative effects of
the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance."
Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that cutting the time
soldiers spend in combat is an integral part of reducing the stress on the force.
Last year, Senate Republicans and President George W. Bush sabotaged Democratic
attempts to ensure troops as much rest time at home as they spent on their most
recent tour overseas. Cycling troops through three or four tours in Iraq and
Afghanistan has been the only way Bush has been able to maintain a force of
over 140,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
For most Americans, "this war has been statistics, it's been rhetoric,"
said Hughes, the former member of the Illinois National Guard. "But for
the American soldiers who've served there it is personal, and for the Iraqi
people who live there, it's personal. That's why our testimony is important."
Streaming Video and Audio
Video and photographic evidence will also be presented,
and the Winter Soldier testimony and panels will be broadcast live on nationally
Pacifica Radio and satellite television
station Free Speech TV Channel 9415. Streaming video on IVAW.org,
as well as audio at KPFA.org and WarComesHome.org,
will enable people to tune in across the world.
The War Comes Home site, which I edit, is associated with the San Francisco
Pacifica radio station KPFA and will also feature bios, photos, and videos of
the speakers. Online audio clips of the testimonials will be posted as the hearing
Space at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., the Washington,
D.C., suburb where the hearings will occur, is limited. Antiwar activists are
not being encouraged to show up, but are instead being asked to have listening
or viewing parties in their own communities.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in Focus.