Contents: The Sir! No Sir! blog is an information clearing house, drawing on a wide variety of sources, to track the unfolding history of the new GI Movement, and the wars that brought the movement to life.
Where applicable, parallels will be drawn between the new movement and the Vietnam era movement which was the focus of the film Sir! No Sir!
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This article, by Cynthia and Michael Orange, was published in AlterNet, April 18, 2008
Soldiers of the 'War on Terror' Speak Out
If all of America were to hear these voices, the occupation of Iraq would already be over.
We're not bad people; not monsters. We're normal people caught in a horrible situation."
-Statement from Clifton Hicks, a tank gunner with the Army's 1st Cavalry Regiment and testifier at "Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan"
Over four days, we witnessed thirty hours of vetted statements from seventy two veterans, active duty soldiers, experts, and Iraqis who had the great courage to go public with their first-hand experiences as part of "Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations." A common thread emerged of soldiers who struggled with a questionable mission as occupiers of a country in the midst of a civil war, and Iraqi families being torn apart and terrified, terrified by-not grateful for-the presence of American soldiers and private mercenaries. The soldiers and veterans transfixed us with their words and graphic images that exposed the dark underbelly of the Iraq Occupation that the mainstream media have chosen to ignore, just as they ignored these groundbreaking hearings.
The national veterans organization, Iraq Vets Against the War (IVAW), held these hearings near Washington D.C. from March 13 to 16. They patterned them after the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings held in Detroit by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, which are now thought to be one of the turning points of that conflict. The title for the hearings comes from Thomas Paine who wrote in 1776, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of [their] country; but he that stands [by] it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Unlike the "summer soldiers" who often deserted their duties in Paine's time, "winter soldiers" carry on courageously through the darkness.
We tried to comprehend the enormous scale of the so-called "collateral damage" in Iraq as speakers cited surveys that estimated about a million Iraqi civilians have died since the U.S. invasion, and that over four million Iraqis were forced from their homes. The speakers told of Iraqis, being without power and water, begging for food and fuel, and only wanting foreign troops and the 180,000 private contractors and mercenaries to leave so they can begin to rebuild their devastated country.
The presenters at Winter Soldier went deeper than telling stories that once again confirm what we all should know: war is hell. They addressed the anguished question that naturally arises: How do you explain actions that would be criminal even in a war zone?
The soldiers and veterans explained how trickle-down abuse starts at the top ranks of the military hierarchy with institutionalized racism, sexual harassment, and assault on the lower ranks. They talked about their complete lack of training in Iraqi culture and language and their conditioning before leaving U.S. soil to think of Iraqis as "less than," as "Hajis;" a term once reserved for pilgrims to Mecca, now turned inside out to demean and dehumanize. "Haji" has become to the Iraq occupation what "Gook" became to the Vietnam and Korean wars. When people are dehumanized, it becomes easier to kill them.
We could not listen to the four days of accounts and imagine our country invaded Iraq to export the American dream of freedom and democracy. Even the ultraconservative former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, declared that "the prime motive for the war in Iraq was oil." It didn't take long for the soldiers and vets who spoke to come to the same conclusion once they experienced the reality on the ground.
As in all wars, if you haven't experienced it, it's hard to grasp the white-hot frustration, anger, and vengeful wrath that results when our soldiers have no reliable way to discern friend from foe and are under extreme duress at virtually all times in a near-country-wide combat zone. As the disillusionment over the injustice and the impossibility of the mission grows, so does the abuse of civilians. When soldiers, deployed two, three, four, and even five times, experience more and more casualties in their units-people with whom they share a bond that can be even stronger than family-their rage understandably erupts and they need to blame someone for their grief. Similar circumstances produced similar results in the jungles of Vietnam.
Kristofer Goldsmith was a good soldier, graduating at the top of his basic training class and receiving a 94.6 percent average in his Warrior Leadership Course. But after four deployments in Iraq and almost shooting a six-year-old boy, he said he became a "broken soldier." He was due to get out of the service when he, like some 80,000 other soldiers, was "stop-lossed" and ordered to redeploy to Iraq for a fifth time. Plagued by mental anguish the day before he was to leave, he tried to kill himself with alcohol and prescription pills. Although finally released, his discharge papers state, "Misconduct: Serious Offense" because of his suicide attempt. He showed the audience a picture of himself in uniform as the proud soldier, then slammed it down on the table saying "This boy is dead."
So many soldiers and veterans spoke of their noble motives for joining the military-especially after 9/11-but then having to face the ignoble inhumanity of this occupation that so compromised their values. Then they returned to a country that anointed them as the heroes they so wished to be. Is it any wonder they are conflicted and disillusioned with the contradictions? Is it any wonder that government statistics report that one in three returning soldiers has mental problems and that CBS News recently described the suicide rate among today's soldiers and vets as "epidemic?" As we continue to see with Vietnam vets, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a normal human response to the inhumanity of war.
We listened to Jason Hurd, a medic with ten years of Army service including tours of duty in Iraq: "But as time went on and the absurdity of war set in, they started taking things too far. Individuals from my unit indiscriminately and unnecessarily opened fire on innocent civilians as they were driving down the road on their own streets." He asked us all to see the war through the eyes of an Iraqi and consider how we might respond if a foreign army invaded our communities and terrorized our families.
The soldiers and vets described the shear mechanics of killing so many people. In story after story, we heard how Rules of Engagement slowly eroded to the point where it was too often left up to these young, very frightened, soldiers to determine for themselves if they "felt" threatened. Jason Lemieux, who served almost five years with the Marines, including the invasion and three tours in Iraq, described the rules he received: "[M]y commander told me that our mission was-and I quote-'to kill those who need to be killed and save those who need to be saved.' And with those words, he pretty much set the tone for the deployment." Too often, the Rules were reduced to "Shoot anything that moves."
Two Marines talked about trashing the country during the invasion. One of them, Brian Casler, served three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. As part of the invasion force, he said he and others in their unit defecated and urinated into the containers of food and water they threw at the welcoming children they encountered. To relieve the boredom during his first deployment, they demolished Babylonian ruins and "drove over the rubble for fun." After describing how they ransacked a public building, he said, "We found out later that we had shredded all of the birth certificates for the City of Fallujah."
Several speakers talked about the disrespect of the Iraqi dead. Michael Leduc, for example, told us about "Rotten Randy" and "Tony the Torso," the nicknames his Marine unit gave to the corpses they used for rifle practice.
Soldiers and vets also explained the practice of "reconnaissance by fire," where they'd shoot first into a house or a neighborhood in order to draw return fire. Then, instead of moving on the source of the return fire and incurring more risk to the unit, they'd respond with overwhelming firepower that devastated the entire building or area. Hart Vigas, a mortarman who served with the Army's 82nd Airborne for the invasion of Iraq, painted a word picture of the indiscriminate, "ground-shaking" destruction from C-130 Specter gunships. The students have learned from their teachers. A forward observer and drill instructor with the Army's 101st Airborne Division, Jessie Hamilton stated that the Iraqi forces "showed little or no restraint" when they responded to the slightest attack with such indiscriminate firing that the U.S. troops gave nicknames to their methods: 'spray and pray' and 'death blossom.' "Once the shooting started," he said, "death would blossom all around."
Clifton Hicks described an operation that resulted in an official estimate of 700 to 800 enemy dead. "Judging from what I saw on the ground," he said, "I'm willing to swear under oath in all honesty that while many enemy combatants were in fact killed, the majority of those so-called KIAs were in fact civilians attempting to flee the battlefield.
The gripping presentation and images from Jon Michael Turner, who served in Iraq with the 8th Marines, were, like so many personal stories we've heard, still bleeding with its raw truthfulness. "A lot of the raids and patrols we did were at night around three in the morning . . . . And what we would do is just kick in the doors and terrorize the families." After he described segregating the women, the children, and the men, he said, "If the men of the household were giving us problems, we'd go ahead and take care of them anyway we felt necessary, whether it be choking them or slamming their head against the walls. . . . On my wrist, there's Arabic for 'F you.' I got that put on my wrist just two weeks before we went to Iraq, because that was my choking hand, and any time I felt the need to take out aggression, I would go ahead and use it."
He was one of the first to speak of these things but far from the last. Like so many other speakers, he said this kind of situation was the norm for him and for others, not the exception. With a forced smile that constrained his quivering lips, he closed with an apology to the Iraqi people: "I just want to say that I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people. . . . until people hear about what is going on with this war, it will continue to happen and people will continue to die. I am sorry for the things that I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was."
Describing the heartache that results from not being able to identify your enemy, Jason Washburn, a Marine who served four years and completed three tours of duty in Iraq, said this: "If the town or the city that we were approaching was a known threat, if the unit that went through the area before we did took a high number of casualties, we were basically allowed to shoot whatever we wanted. . . . I remember one woman was walking by, carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading towards us. So we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher. And when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was only full of groceries. And, I mean, she had been trying to bring us food, and we blew her to pieces for it."
Soldiers and vets told how superior officers instructed them on the official ways to torment and beat detainees. Andrew Duffy, a medic who served on the trauma team at the Abu Ghraib military prison, put it this way, "You can't spell abuse without 'Abu.'" They were told to use the term "detainee" because, unlike "prisoner of war," there are no laws protecting detainees. While he rocked back and forth in his seat nervously, Mathew Childess, a Marine infantryman who served two tours in Iraq, referred to beating detainees and "breaking fingers." When a particular detainee begged for food and water, he took the man's hat, wiped himself with it, and stuffed it into the man's mouth.
Like Turner, numerous soldiers and veterans stared into the cameras that were recording the hearing for broadcast and pled for forgiveness from the Iraqi people now that they were distanced from the madness in Iraq in an apparent attempt to regain some of what had been lost. For many, their hands trembled as they talked and, along with us witnesses, were moved to tears. At other times, so many only revealed that thousand-yard stare we've seen too many times on the faces of Vietnam vets who carry the scars of that war.
We sat engulfed in the horror, sorrow, and grief of the soldiers' experiences and wondered how we could transform this to help our children and grandchildren reach an understanding so that they can make wise decisions when they have the opportunity to serve their community and country at the local homeless shelter, the voting booth, the peace march, or the armed forces.
Some vets like Jeff Lucey couldn't speak, so his parents spoke in his stead. His father said his grown Marine son came home so haunted by what he had done and witnessed that he drank heavily to anesthetize his pain-a coping strategy mentioned by many of the vets who spoke. His parents said Veterans Affairs (VA) told them they couldn't assess him for PTSD until he was alcohol free. Although he wouldn't talk about the trauma he experienced, Jeff would ask his father to hold him on his lap and rock him so he could feel safe. Jeff's father said the last time he was able to hold his son was when he cut his body down from the rafters at their home where Jeff had hung himself with a hose.
Those who sell the invasion and occupation as a "just war" will deny that these first-hand accounts are part of the whole truth or they will simply dismiss the speakers as liars and traitors, which is already happening. They will continue to entice new advocates and a never-ending stream of recruits, all made possible by a gutless Congress, a compliant media, an apathetic public, and a bottomless military budget, including $4 billion annually for recruiting.
Repeatedly, the speakers stated that they welcomed the opportunity to testify as to the accuracy of their statements in a legal proceeding. Luis Montalvan, a captain with 17 years of service in the Army, stated, "I would like nothing better than to testify under oath to Congress." He then quoted President Theodore Roosevelt: "To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."
I was waiting for this article to be published, as I had spoken to the author at Winter Soldier and was surprised to see nothing published.
Original article, War Torn Vets Speak Out, by Claudia Feldman was published in the Houston Chronicle, April 18, 2008
Hart Viges walks the streets of Austin in a tunic and carries a sign that reads, "Jesus Against War." It's one of many ways, he says, that he must atone for his actions as an American soldier in Iraq.
Army Sgt. Ronn Cantu says lingering memories of killing a civilian in Iraq led him to start a chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War at his home — Fort Hood.
And in Houston, Chris Hauff, an Iraq War vet who returned from combat two years ago, wrestles with the feeling that his best friend died in a misguided war.
"The idea that American soldiers are there to spread democracy and liberate the people is all smoke and mirrors," Hauff says.
After five years and more than 4,000 American deaths, hundreds of anti-war Iraq veterans and even some active-duty soldiers are speaking out in protest. Though they make up a relatively small percentage of all the soldiers who have served, certainly they speak from experience. They've had their boots on the ground.
Nationally, more than 1,000 have joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is calling for an immediate troop pullout. At a recent IVAW conference in suburban Washington, D.C., 60 vets addressed about 400 peers. Collectively, they described American soldiers unraveling under pressure — devolving from fighting for freedom and defending innocents to saving their own lives, protecting their friends and getting revenge.
Viges, tall and reed-slim, spoke as if his entry to heaven were on the line.
"I joined the Army right after September 11th," he began. He ended with, "I don't know how many innocents I've helped kill. ...
"I have blood on my hands."
His story, common among the speakers, began with good intentions and patriotic zeal. Then he realized he couldn't tell friend from enemy, and as he dodged mortar fire and roadside bombs, he feared each new day was going to be his last.
In that atmosphere, Viges and other soldiers assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division aimed countless mortar rounds at the town of As Samawah, southeast of Baghdad. They were trying to root out insurgents, but to this day, Viges doesn't know whom or what they hit.
"This wasn't army to army," Viges said. "People live in towns."
The panelists' speeches were vetted ahead of time by two groups of veterans who scoured news accounts, researched documents, videos and photographs where available, and interviewed others who were present at the time.
The testimonials were sobering. They included heart-stopping details. But the vets kept talking. Clearly, it was information they felt compelled to share.
Jason Washburn's testimony is preserved on the Internet. A Marine veteran from Philadelphia, he explained how the rules of engagement kept changing until it seemed there were no rules at all.
"If the town or the city that we were approaching was a known threat, if the unit that went through the area before we did took a high number of casualties, we were allowed to shoot whatever we wanted.
"I remember one woman was walking by, and she was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us. So we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher. And when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was only full of groceries. And, I mean, she had been trying to bring us food, and we blew her to pieces for it."
Jon Michael Turner, a Marine veteran from Vermont, described 3 a.m. house raids in which "problem" Iraqi men were subjected to his "choking hand."
It was tattooed in Arabic with an all-too-American epithet.
Turner recalled the first time he shot an Iraqi civilian. He offered no context or explanation except, "We were all congratulated after we had our first kills."
Turner also recalled the blind rage that led him and fellow Marines to start fights, spray bullets indiscriminately and fire on mosques. Eighteen men in his unit were killed by the enemy, he said. After that much bloodshed, the surviving soldiers were damaged mentally, if not physically.
"I just want to say that I'm sorry for the hate and destruction that I've inflicted on innocent people," said Turner, who began his speech by ripping off his service medals. "Until people hear about what is happening in this war, it will continue."
Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, read from a one-paragraph response to the conference:
"(We) always regret the loss of any innocent life in Iraq or anywhere else. The U.S. military takes enormous precautions to prevent civilian deaths and injuries. By contrast the enemy in Iraq takes no such precautions and deliberately targets innocent civilians. When isolated allegations of misconduct have been reported, commanders have conducted comprehensive investigations to determine the facts and held individuals accountable when appropriate."
The vast majority of American soldiers, Ballesteros added, serve honorably in combat.
The veterans who came to Maryland last month called their conference Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a sequel to a tense 1971 gathering in a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit, where more than 100 Vietnam vets braved frigid winter conditions to speak out against their war.
(Organizers of the original chose the title Winter Soldier Investigation to evoke Thomas Paine, who wrote in 1776, "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.")
Navy Lt. John Kerry, the future U.S. senator and presidential candidate, attended that meeting and, a few months later, lambasted the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Proud American soldiers were reduced to acts of senseless destruction, Kerry told the senators, "not isolated incidents but crimes ... ."
Many Americans — still recovering from the news of the My Lai massacre — believed Kerry. But lingering resentment from his testimony may have cost him the 2004 presidential election.
During his campaign against President Bush, Vietnam vets still furious with Kerry for somehow staining their service records and their honor struck back. They claimed he wasn't a war hero, that he hadn't earned his multiple medals, that in fact, he'd awarded his medals to himself.
The topic is still red-hot, even today. Pennsylvania veteran Bill Perry, who campaigned for Kerry and attended both Winter Soldier meetings, offered his perspective: "Kerry came from a well-educated, wealthy family, and he could have ducked the whole thing. I respect the person who served."
The comment was aimed at President Bush, who did not fight in Vietnam or any war.
The latest Winter Soldier event coincided with national polls showing two-thirds of Americans disagree with the handling of the war but consider the economy and their own financial logjams more pressing than combat halfway around the world.
Viges, the veteran of the 82nd Airborne, struggled to understand that disconnect.
One of his jobs in Iraq was to stand guard with a .50-caliber machine gun while his buddies searched houses supposedly inhabited by insurgents and enemy combatants. At the conference, searches of that kind were described vividly. Sometimes soldiers kicked in the front doors. Sometimes they upended refrigerators and ripped stoves out of walls. Sometimes they turned drawers upside down and broke furniture.
One day Viges was instructed to search a suspicious house, a hut, really, but he couldn't find pictures of Saddam Hussein, piles of money, AK-47s or roadside bombs.
"The only thing I found was a little .22 pistol," Viges said, " ... but we ended up taking the two young men, regardless."
An older woman, probably the mother of the young men, watched and wailed nearby.
"She was crying in my face, trying to kiss my feet," Viges said. "And, you know, I can't speak Arabic, but I can speak human. She was saying, 'Please, why are you taking my sons? They have done nothing wrong.' "
The testimonials went on for 3 1/2 days. They were interrupted once, when a middle-age man leaped from his seat and ran toward the stage.
"Liars! Liars!" he shouted. "Kerry lied while good men died, and you guys are betraying good men."
Others among the counter-protesters tried for a more even tone.
Chris Eaton, a former Houstonian now living in Dallas, spoke for them when he described himself as an average guy doing his best to support American troops.
"I'm not hateful," he said. "I'm not a warmonger."
He's married and the father of three. For his little girl's seventh birthday, he welded a butterfly made of old car parts, plate steel and rebar.
But Eaton didn't travel halfway across the country to talk about butterflies. He wanted to lend his voice to the counter-protesters. He wanted to remind the anti-war vets that they needed to tell the absolute and precise truth or risk demoralizing their brothers and sisters still fighting overseas.
Eaton also wanted to support his friend, retired Army Col. Harry Riley, who organized the counter-protest and the sponsoring group, Eagles Up.
Riley is a decorated Vietnam vet. He's got a calm, mellifluous voice — until he flashes back to 1971.
"No one stood up for me or millions of others smeared by Kerry," Riley said. "That first Winter Soldier meeting was total bunk, denigration and falsehood. We want to ensure this second one meets our criteria for accuracy."
It is true, Perry said, that a few of the testimonies from '71 contained significant errors and should have been omitted. That's unfortunate, he said, but hardly surprising given the impromptu nature of that meeting. The great majority of the vets, Perry said, spoke the truth.
Did not, said Riley, referring to a government investigation of the most serious charges made in Detroit. Not one of the soldiers' testimonies was substantiated.
Perry noted that the investigation was conducted by Army personnel. In his opinion, the Army's investigation of itself was a joke.
With a wrench, Riley pushed the conversation back into the 21st century. If atrocities or war crimes are taking place in Iraq or Afghanistan, he said, service men and women are duty-bound to report them under oath and through official channels. Failure to do so, he added, means they are potential criminals themselves and subject to prosecution.
"Oh, great," retorted Hauff, the Houstonian. Soldiers aren't going to turn themselves in, and they're not going to report their peers or their superiors, either, he said.
"Nobody wants to be viewed as a snitch or a narc," Hauff said. And who, he asked, volunteers for a dock in pay or a loss of rank or a court-martial or worse?
"You're supposed to do what you're told in the military."
For vets who often feel isolated by their experiences and their memories, old war buddies are their best, most comfortable friends.
Viges greeted old friends joyously between sessions at the Winter Soldier conference. Many of them were vets from the Vietnam era.
"They are my fathers," he said.
After struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, Viges said, he is somewhat better. He still jumps at the sound of fireworks, but he's stopped patrolling the perimeter of his house.
With shoulder-length, brown hair and a goatee, Viges looks very much like a model for velvet Jesus portraits. When he puts on his tunic and takes his anti-war campaign to the streets, he tells anyone who will listen, "Love thine enemy" and "Turn the other cheek."
A devout Christian, Viges finally left combat as a conscientious objector.
Cantu, the Fort Hood soldier, was one of several celebrity Texans at the conference. He says his pro-war sentiments changed 180 degrees the day he killed a civilian in Iraq. His convoy had been hit by an improvised explosive device, and he wanted revenge.
Next thing he knew, a car was coming toward them, and despite the warnings, it didn't stop.
Cantu opened fire. He didn't know until too late the car was filled with multiple members of an Iraqi family.
"I was literally on the verge of quitting (the military) right then and there," said Cantu, a third-generation military man.
Instead, he's spoken out against the war, through the protest chapter he founded and a 60 Minutes interview in 2007.
He occasionally comes to the attention of his superiors, too.
"All I've done is use my First Amendment rights," Cantu said. "I appreciate the Constitution. You can't really love it until you've actually been protected by it."
Cantu is scheduled to return to Iraq for his third tour of duty in early 2009.
"I've cheated death so many times," he said, suddenly somber. "I hope I can do it again."
Hauff, the Houston vet, didn't try to make it to Maryland. He had his hands full, with his job, his wife and his little girl. Besides, he didn't want to talk about the ugly side of war.
His best friend was on patrol, subbing for Hauff, when he was killed.
Hauff paused, keeping the many things he thought about that tragedy to himself. He had his emotions under control, he said, and he's moved on with his life.
His mother-in-law, sipping coffee and listening to him, cocked her head as if she didn't quite agree.
That year in Iraq changed him, Sherry Glover said. He doesn't like to be touched. He can be impatient with the people, even the child he loves the most. It's almost like he's barricaded himself inside an invisible fence that has a sign: "Keep out."
When Hauff finished talking, he frowned at his mother-in-law and walked away. They're sharing the same house, at least until Hauff and his family can afford to move.
Military families are paying for this war, Glover said darkly. She has a friend whose son tried to commit suicide between tours of duty. Army doctors gave him a bunch of prescriptions and deemed him ready to serve.
Glover couldn't go to the conference — she wanted to keep an eye on things at home — and made do by listening to the testimony on the local Pacifica radio station, KPFT-90.1 FM.
She and many other peace activists wondered why only a couple of outlets in the mainstream media covered the event.
The vets also wondered what all the other newspapers, magazines and TV stations were afraid of. The truth?
That's not it, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
The gathering was tiny, Sabato said, in comparison to protests from the Vietnam era. Also, activists on both sides of the war have moved the debate to the presidential campaign.
President Bush has been unequivocal in his support for the war, Sabato said, and those who share that commitment will vote Republican. Those who oppose the war will vote for the Democrat.
It's not that Americans don't have an opinion, he said. They're just waiting for Election Day.
US/IRAQ: "We Reacted Out of Fear, and With Total Destruction"
By Dahr Jamal, March 14, 2008
SILVER SPRING, Maryland, Mar 14 (IPS) - Hart Viges joined the U.S. Army the day after Sep. 11, 2001, in the belief that he could help make the world a safer place.
He ended up stationed in Fallujah, and then Baghdad. "We were the only authority and took full advantage of that," he told an audience of roughly 300 people here gathered for three days of testimony by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan about abuses of civilians. "Everything was haji...haji house, haji smokes, haji burger."
The term "haji" is used by U.S. soldiers in Iraq to degrade and dehumanise the Iraqi people.
Viges, like others who spoke, said that U.S. troops routinely detained innocent people during home raids.
"We never went on the right raid where we got the right house, much less the right person -- not once," he said.
He also said it was common practice for troops to take photographs as "war trophies".
"We were driving in Baghdad one day and found a dead body on the side of the road," Viges said. "We pulled over to secure the area and my friends jumped off and started taking pictures with it, smiling. They asked me if I wanted to join them and I said no, but not because it was unethical, but because it wasn't my kill. Because you shouldn't take trophies with those you didn't kill. I wasn't upset this man was dead, but just that they shouldn't be taking credit for something they didn't do. But that's war."
The event, which has drawn international media attention, was organised by Iraq Veterans Against the War. Its goal is to give U.S. service members a chance to talk about their experiences during the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, and to show that their stories of wrongdoing in both countries were not isolated incidents limited to a few "bad apples", as the Pentagon claims, but were everyday occurrences.
Adam Kokesh served in Fallujah beginning in February 2004 for roughly one year. Speaking on a panel about the Rules of Engagement (ROE), he held up the ROE card soldiers are issued in Iraq and said, "This card says, 'Nothing on this card prevents you from using deadly force to defend yourself'."
Kokesh pointed out that "reasonable certainty" was the condition for using deadly force under the ROE, and this led to rampant civilian deaths. He discussed taking part in the April 2004 siege of Fallujah. During that attack, doctors at Fallujah General Hospital told IPS there were 736 deaths, over 60 percent of which were civilians.
"We changed the ROE more often than we changed our underwear," Kokesh said. "At one point, we imposed a curfew on the city, and were told to fire at anything that moved in the dark. I don't think soldiers should be put in the position to choose between their morals and their instinct for survival."
Kokesh also testified that during two cease-fires in the midst of the siege, the military decided to let out as many women and children from the embattled city as possible, but this did not include most men.
"For males, they had to be under 14 years of age," he said. "So I had to go over there and turn men back, who had just been separated from their women and children. We thought we were being gracious."
The Mar. 13-16 event has been named "Winter Soldier" to honour a similar gathering 30 years ago of veterans of the Vietnam War. Winter soldiers, according to U.S. founding father Thomas Paine, are the people who stand up for the soul of their country, even in its darkest hours.
Iraq Veterans Against the War was founded in 2004 to give those who have served in the military since Sep. 11, 2001 a way to come together and speak out against what they say is an unjust, illegal and unwinnable war. Today, IVAW has over 800 members in 49 states, Washington, D.C. and Canada and on military bases overseas.
Steve Casey served in Iraq for over a year, from mid-2003.
"We were scheduled to go home in April 2004 but due to rising violence, we stayed in with Operation Blackjack," Casey told the audience. "I watched soldiers firing into the radiators and windows of oncoming vehicles. Those who didn't turn around were unfortunately neutralised one way or another -- well over 20 times I personally witnessed this. There was a lot of collateral damage."
Jason Hurd served in central Baghdad from November 2004 until November 2005. He told of how, after his unit took "stray rounds" from a nearby firefight, a machine gunner responded by firing over 200 rounds into a nearby building.
"We fired indiscriminately at this building," he said. "Things like that happened every day in Iraq. We reacted out of fear for our lives, and we reacted with total destruction."
Hurd said the situation deteriorated rapidly while he was in Iraq. "Over time, as the absurdity of war set in, individuals from my unit indiscriminately opened fire at vehicles driving down the wrong side of the road. People in my unit would later brag about it. I remember thinking how appalled I was that we were laughing at this, but that was the reality."
Hurd expressed what the over 200 veterans in the room appeared to agree with.
"We're disrupting the lives of our veterans with this occupation, not only the lives of Iraqis. If a foreign occupying force came here to the U.S., do you not think that every person that has a shotgun would not come out of the hills and fight for their right for self-determination?"
To rousing applause, Hurd ended his testimony with, "Ladies and gentlemen, that country is suffering from our occupation, and ending that suffering begins with the total and immediate withdrawal of all of our troops."
Video and photographic evidence will also be presented at the event, and the testimony and panels can be viewed live on Satellite TV and over streaming video on ivaw.org.
On the morning after reaching the National Labor College and our friends and allies, it was only appropriate that he begin the testimony. If I have met a man more befitting of his name, I do not remember. Hart Viges, however, was not always the kind, deep-thinking man he is today, according to his testimony today. Iraq changed him, like it has so many of our youth, including me. Hart has felt many of the same emotions we all have and testified to the guilt he has felt after mass-mortaring Iraqi towns and not having to see the effects of his work. He is particularly ashamed of not taking a trophy picture with a dead Iraqi . . . not because of his moral opposition to it, but instead because it wasn't his kill.
Clifton Hicks began his testimony by making it clear how much he loves and respects the men he served with in Iraq. They kept him safe and they kept him sane and many of them truly believed in the mission they were undertaking, and that is okay; he will always love them and would never betray them.
Clifton Hicks and his comrade, Steve Casey, are giving testimony about their experience in a "free-fire zone" because there were "no friendlies." According to a numbers cruncher later on, their company had killed between 700 and 800 enemy combatants, however, Hicks and Casey never saw any enemy combatants. In November of 2003, according to Hicks, an AC-130 gunship opened fire on an apartment complex. There was prior-notice given to the company, according to Hicks, by a Lieutenant Colonel about "putting on a show" for the boys. Later, the apartment was annihilated as Casey and his comrades watched and cheered from the roof of a nearby building. Casey states that he never thought about it at the time, but now the loss of so much civilian life truly bothers him.
Hicks is testifying that this building demolition was the most destructive act he's seen in his entire life, and it was not a legitimate military target. A sniper team could have neutralized the enemy sporadically firing from that location, but leadership instead chose to destroy the entire building and the civilians inside.
Hicks is testifying now about a wedding party that was fired upon by an infantry patrol that that had confused their celebratory gunfire for the gunfire that they had received across the street. In the end, there were several members of the family wounded and one killed . . . a young girl, maybe six or seven years old. After realizing their folly, all the men could do was move on after their leadership told them to continue mission.
The testimony was just interrupted by an older man yelling "Carried live while good men die!" before being escorted away. Yes, sir, good men are dying. Good American men are dying and good Iraqi men are dying. Just like you, we want it to stop, and that is where we share commonality. We are not "betraying" anyone as you assert, sir; we are those who are giving a voice to those who cannot speak their mind in the conformist, oppressive culture of the US military.
Steve Casey is now continuing the testimony and speaking about a house raid where the squad destroyed the contents of an entire house while a woman shrieked, only to find out they were at the wrong house. He is now showing a video of that raid, and answering questions about the mistaken raid. The woman's voice is haunting, and I now wonder what it must have been like for her to clean up that house after the US had left. Casey reiterates that this is not an indictment on those he served with; they were products of the environment they were in.
Steven Mortillo served in the army from 2002 to 2005 as a scout. March 17th, 2004, Mortillo arrived in Iraq and spent most of his time conducting "presence patrols", walking down the street waiting for something to go wrong. On one of these patrols, his squad received RPG fire and could not return fire, due to the angle of the Bradley weapon system. They fired warning shots into a wall in order to prevent any more action. They showed remarkable restraint, but that would not be the case for the entirety of their tour. Once they started taking casualties and losing men, they started losing patience and growing resentful. It became more and more difficult to restrain their anger.
On a dismounted patrol that December, Mortillo's squad came under fire. He called up the contact reports on his manpack radio and suppressed the area with M203 grenades; the fighting was intense and fast-paced. After breaking contact, his unit EVACed their platoon leader, who had been wounded, into an awaiting Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The enraged Bradley crew asked where the attack had come from and directed all their firepower at the area, a highly populated residential neighborhood. The sincerity in his voice and periodic pauses in his speech are convincing; this man feels horrible for what he and his comrades did in that theater. According to Mortillo, it was difficult to even know if you are following the ROE when you are in the thick of it and especially when you believe you are getting revenge for the death of a friend.
Thus far, every participant has taken great pains to make it clear that they are not here selling out their buddies or betraying anyone.
Jesse Hamilton was a former drill sergeant and gung ho soldier who volunteered to go to Iraq to help mentor the Iraqi army, even though he disagreed with the war. In Fallujah from 2005 to 2006, Hamilton served mostly with a ten man team and many Iraqi personnel. In his opinion, there are no true ROE in Iraq because the Iraqi forces and the civilian resistance paid no attention to ROE. The Iraqi forces were poorly trained or poorly concerned about the matter of firing their weapons in a responsible manner. Anyone who has trained these men, as I have, knows what he means Hamilton says, "Spray and Pray." I understand what Hamilton means when he says that it seemed as if the Iraqis didn't treat their own civilians very well. The Iraqis could be very brutal, especially after Iraqi soldiers had been killed. After taking prisoners, the cruel nature of the men was exposed and Hamilton and the other American advisers did all they could to quell that. The main goals of Hamilton's squad were to keep the Iraqis from having negligent discharges of their weapons and keeping the Iraqis from torturing their prisoners. Such a mission made apathy inevitable and wore Hamilton's squad down emotionally and mentally. Yes, the Iraqi Army made improvements tactically while Hamilton was in the theater, but their cruelty to each other never did. As a soldier, it is impossible to change the culture of another country; Hamilton maintains, that if that is our mission, it is a lost cause. If the Iraqis want self-governance, give it to them. These are the words of a man who wanted so badly for things to be different. He cared for these men and sacrificed much to train and mentor them. It's just not worth it, he ends.
IVAW's most famous (or infamous, depending on your opinion of him) member, Adam Kokesh, did not agree with the war, but he did volunteer to serve in Iraq in order to "do the right thing" and "clean up our mess". Adam is reading the ROE card that every soldier or Marine is given.
Adam was in Fallujah shortly after the four Blackwater contractors were killed and hanged from a bridge. In that city, the ROE was always changing.
On the screen is a picture of a vehicle that was destroyed by a .50 caliber machine gun at a checkpoint because it seemed suspicious and the Marines felt threatened. As the car and the people inside burned, the Marines tried to justify their action by discussing what they asserted were rounds inside the vehicle cooking off . . . after bringing the car inside, however, they found that there were no rounds and the inhabitants of the car were unarmed.
During the waning days of the siege of Fallujah, fires broke out and Iraqi firefighters and police raced to the scene. US forces saw the silhouettes up against the area where they had taken fire and started firing on the men. Miscommunication was often the cause of scenes like this.
It was relayed to Kokesh's unit that al Zarqawi was fleeing the city in a Black Opal and to stop all black Opals . . . black Opals were everywhere in Iraq. Kokesh testifies that, whether they are guilty or innocent, all the detainees get treated the same, and it leads to more and more "innocent" ones becoming part of the insurgency.
Kokesh truly believed that he would be doing great things when he went to Iraq with the Civil Affairs team. "We care, so you don't have to" became the mantra as he spent more and more time in Iraq trying to catch rides with infantry squads in order to do his job. Kokesh was proud of what he could do on a local scale and he did the best job that he could.
Jason Hurd served in Baghdad from November 2004 to November 2005. Jason's father, a truly gung-ho WWII veteran and gun enthusiast, was vehemently opposed to Jason joining the army, and Jason is now convinced that he had severe PTSD. Jason joined anyway and found himself in Iraq serving as a combat medic. His first mission involved manning observation points along the International Zone . . . or Green Zone. After a stray bullet from an Iraqi Police-led firefight across the river hit the shield of an American humvee, the gunner fired over 200 .50 caliber machine gun rounds into a building that may or may not have had civilians inside; they never knew.
After following the rules of escalation and rules of engagement to a tee for months, the absurdity of war crept in and soldiers started taking liberties. They escalated force before they were allowed to do so.
Jason is now telling the story of an Iraqi woman who told them about her husband, who had been killed by US forces after merely getting too close to a convoy. Shortly after, her husband's death, her house was raided, and her son was detained and taken away and returned two weeks later. The intelligence was faulty, and the raid never should have been conducted in the first place.
The personal anguish in Jason's voice as he provides accounts of car bombs, dying Iraqi teenagers, "drawing down" on an eighty-year old Iraqi woman, and the effects of PTSD since his return. He points out that every survey shows the majority of Iraqis approve of attacks on Americans, who they believe are to blame for their situation. It is much like how we react if we were invaded by another country. An Iraqi man once told Hurd that they did not question the intentions of the US soldiers, but that their presence is what has caused so much pain and suffering.
Jose Vasquez is concluding this panel and summing up the point of this event.
Winter Soldier: America Must Hear These Iraq Vets' Stories
By Penny Coleman, AlterNet. Posted March 15, 2008.
I missed the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971. At the time I was married to a vet who desperately wanted to put his war behind him -- and he wanted me to help him do it. We were supposed to pretend it had never happened. It didn't work.
Daniel refused to talk about Vietnam. "Talk to your old lady? No fucking way," his friend Bobby Lanz shot back when I said I thought that maybe Daniel wouldn't have killed himself if I had been able to get him to talk about whatever it was that was causing him such pain. "With other vets, you can say, 'shit man, I did all this horrible stuff. You're not going to believe the stuff I did', and someone who has been there will say, 'Yeah, so did I, so did we all.' But with your woman? You start to talk about having fucked some folks up bad, doing awful things, killing people, maybe, and she starts to cry and you don't go there again. You think, Fuck me, man, I don't need to hurt her. This is psychological abuse, so I am going to shut up."
Maybe I wouldn't have understood. Completely. But not knowing was far worse. For decades, I took responsibility for his death. I thought it was my fault. And even if I hadn't been able to understand exactly what he was talking about, I would have understood that he was in a kind of lethal pain. Whether it was that he thought he deserved to die or that he deserved to be put out of his misery, either way, execution or euthanasia, I would have understood that he had been injured in the war. And I would have known where to focus my grief and my rage.
What I kept thinking today, listening to all those who testified at this new Winter Soldier investigation sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War at the National Labor College in Washington, DC, is that so much grief and pain for the past 30 years has been mis-directed, so much energy wasted, blaming ourselves and the soldiers we loved for the injuries that we couldn't see. Joyce Lucey, the mother of a soldier who took his own life after returning from Iraq, said that when he left he gave her a coin and told her to hold it like an amulet to keep him safe. She did, but she now understands that even though her son had been returned to her, his soul had been destroyed. "I should have been holding that coin after he came home."
But, she continued, "His voice is silenced. Ours is not." And she quoted Edmund Burke: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in America is for good men to do nothing."
Everything I heard today spoke to that challenge, to the challenge of channeling our combined grief and rage into a focused fight that will really, finally make a difference. Clifton Hicks began his testimony by saying that all of the men he served with in Iraq were there for love: love of country, of ideals, of comrades, and "for that they are beyond judgment. I am here," he added, "to judge the war itself."
One after another, veterans told conflicted stories, some with tears, some with rigid control, some with visible shakes, but all with hard-won moral courage and deep sorrow. John Michael Turner began his testimony by telling the audience that as far as he was concerned, "Once a Marine, Always a Marine" was history. For him it is now "Eat the apple and fuck the corps." Then he tossed his dog tags into the audience saying, "Fuck you, I don't work for you no more." Turner's first confirmed kill was on April 18, 2006. He shot an Iraqi boy in front of his father. It took a second shot to kill him. He had a photograph of the boy's open skull. Turner was personally congratulated by his commanding officer, who proceeded to offer a four day pass to anyone who got a kill by stabbing one of the enemy. Turner ended with, "I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people. I am sorry for the things I did. I am no longer the monster that I once was."
Hart Viges told of having an insurgent, armed with a rocket-propelled grenade, in his sights during a firefight and not being able to pull the trigger. He was frozen by awareness that the fear and confusion he saw on the Iraqi kid's face was exactly what he imagined was on his own.
Adam Kokesh enlisted in the Marines not because he agreed with the war, but because he "wanted to help clean up the mess." Instead of the schools and water facilities his President had promised he would be helping to build, he found himself policing a wanton project of human and social destruction. He manned "snap" check points where Marines in camouflage at dusk shot unsuspecting drivers who had failed to see them. He described feeling "funny" when he had to decide whether or not to pose with the trophy remains. "I wasn't the one who killed this guy." Kokesh was ordered to shoot at Iraqi police and firemen who were out after curfew putting out a fire that had been started by American rounds. That one he managed to stop with his "little bit of Arabic," but Kokesh wasn't optimistic about our prospects in Iraq. "We care so the American people don't have to. As soon as you choose looking good over doing right, you lose."
Clifton Hicks talked about free fire orders in city neighborhoods and the indiscriminate, often vengeful, targeting of cars and civilians, and about riding through the gates of their compound one night, aware that the humvee in front of his had run over a civilian. No one said anything because it had been a long hard day. They had all been in country long enough to feel that the bigger deal was "being separated from your cot" for the hours it would have taken to fill out the paperwork.
Jason Hurt, a medic from East Tennessee, said, "I am a peaceful person, and I drew down on an 80 year old woman. I hate guns. They should all be melted down into jewelry." And he added, if this were happening where he lives, if some foreign occupying force came into his part of the world, "every self-respecting citizen would come out of the hills with a shotgun to defend their country."
Vincent Emanuelli was appalled by the way American soldiers treated Iraqi dead. "Standard operating procedure was to run over them or take pictures."
Sergio Corrigan said that all an Iraqi needed was a heavy bag and a shovel to become a target. And looking back, with a "clear mind and not so much anger," he wanted to "apologize to the people of Iraq."
James Gilligan struggled to tell about the night he saw a flash on a mountainside and tried to call in for fire. But he took his compass reading too close to a machine gun and the heavy metal threw he reading off. An Afghani village was decimated and he will never be the same.
As Adam Kokesh put it, they were all struggling all the time because their morals were at odds with their survival instincts.
These new Winter Soldiers look so young to me. They are my son's age. My daughter's age as well. The last time young soldiers like these tried to get Americans to listen they were ignored. And that can't be allowed to happen again. The message of Iraq Veterans Against the War came through clearly in every tortured testimony. This is an illegal war. It has cost us our peace of mind. The longer we are there, the more of us will be injured. Bring our troops home now.
It is tempting to despair, but as Logan Laituri reminded the audience, Logan who had testified that his unit unknowingly used white phosphorous for training rounds and that it had "a significant impact on the surrounding communities, what Dr. King said in 1967 is equally true for us now. He said that he opposed the War, then in Vietnam, "because I love America. I speak out against this war not in anger but with anxiety and sorrow in my heart and above all with a passionate desire to see our beloved country stand as the moral example of the world."
Testimony from the March 14, 2008 Rules of Engagement, Part One Panel. Former Marine Corps Sergeant Adam Kokesh served in a Civil Affairs Group in Iraq’s Western Anbar Province from February to September 2004. Since his return from Iraq, Kokesh has become a leading activist with Iraq Veterans Against the War. He was arrested for disrupting General Patreaus’ testimony before Congress last September.
Testimony from the March 14, 2008 Rules of Engagement, Part One Panel. Former US Army Staff Sergeant Jesse Hamilton has received the Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal. His grandfather was a sergeant in World War I, his great-great-grandfather served in the Civil War and his great-great-great grandfather served in the war of 1812. He lives in New Jersey.
Testimony from the March 14, 2008 Rules of Engagement, Part One Panel. Hart Viges joined the Army after September 11th 2001 and was shipped out to Iraq from Febuary 2003 until January 2004. He says that while he was stationed in Iraq he "saw the beauty of the land and the people." When he returned to the US, he filed for Concientious Objector and recieved my Honorable Discharge. Now he works with the GI RIGHTS HOTLINE and goes into High Schools to talk to kids on a weekly basis. He lives in Austin, Texas.