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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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.
Winter Soldier: Hundreds of Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Gather to Testify in Echo of 1971 Vietnam Hearing
Democracy Now!, March 14 2008
Hundreds of veterans and active-duty soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are gathering today for the Winter Soldier hearings. The soldiers plan to give eyewitness accounts of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, the gathering is modeled after the 1971 Winter Solider hearings organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. [includes rush transcript]
"Winter Soldier", –excerpt from film about the 1971 Winter Soldier hearings by Milliarium Zero and the WinterFilm Collective. More information at Wintersoldierfilm.com
David Cortright, Vietnam war veteran and author of the Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War. He is a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Phil Aliff, up until last week he was an active-duty soldier with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at Fort Drum in New York, the most deployed base in the country. He served nearly one year in Iraq from August 2005 to July 2006, in Fallujah and the city of Abu Ghraib. In 2007, he refused to return to Iraq with his unit. He is president of the Ft. Drum chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War and has focused on organizing GI resistance within the active-duty military.
Bill Perry, member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War who testified at the original Winter Soldier hearings in 1971.
Tanya Austin, active-duty soldier who is an organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War. She is an Arab linguist specializing in military intelligence.
Camilo Mejia, the first soldier to refuse to return to fight in Iraq and the chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He is author of The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia.
This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re broadcasting from Silver Spring, Maryland, the site of Winter Soldier. Hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans plan to give eyewitness accounts to atrocities committed by US troops. We’ll speak with veterans, active-duty soldiers and play excerpts from the original Winter Soldier hearings held in 1971 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. All that and more, hundreds of veterans here in—outside Silver Spring.
We’re going to turn right now, go back in time to 1971, to John Kerry, John Kerry testifying in the Winter Soldier hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In a moment, we will be joined by some of the soldiers who plan to testify this weekend. Now, though, 1971, John Kerry, the future senator and presidential candidate, testifying before Congress about the original Winter Soldier hearings.
JOHN KERRY: Several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with a full awareness of officers at all levels of command. It’s impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. But they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.
They told the stories of times that they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.
We called this investigation the Winter Soldier Investigation. The term "winter soldier" is a play on words of Thomas Paine’s in 1776, when he spoke of the "Sunshine Patriot" and "summertime soldiers" who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough. And we who’ve come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country, and we could be quiet. We could hold our silence. We could not tell what went on in Vietnam. But we feel, because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, not red coats, but the crimes which we’re committing are what threaten it, and we have to speak out.
I would like to talk to you a little bit about what the result is of the feelings these men carry with them after coming back from Vietnam. The country doesn’t know it yet, but it’s created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence and who are given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history.
AMY GOODMAN: John Kerry, 1971, talking about the first Winter Soldier hearing. Today, thirty-seven years later, we’re at the National Labor College just outside Washington, D.C. in Silver Spring. Another Winter Soldier is taking place, hundreds of veterans, active-duty soldiers, soldiers who have just returned are gathering for a weekend of testimony.
We’re joined right now by Camilo Mejia. He is chair of the board of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. IVAW is what it’s known as.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
CAMILO MEJIA: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia is a former staff sergeant, Army guard from Florida. Tell us about the Winter Soldier and why even the name. Give us the history.
CAMILO MEJIA: Well, Winter Soldier, actually, we’re borrowing from the first Winter Soldier hearings held in ’71 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War about their eyewitness experiences in that war. And this time around, we’re basically following the tradition of resistance in the military by gathering veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan to testify about our eyewitness accounts in those two wars.
AMY GOODMAN: Who’s here?
CAMILO MEJIA: We have over 250 registered Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, and we also have members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace and other military family groups, such as Military Families Speak Out and Gold Star Families for Peace. And we’re also going to have people testifying from the civilian perspective from both Iraq and Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia, you’ve been on Democracy Now! before. You served close to a year in the brig in prison. Talk about, very briefly—you wrote a book about your experience, Road from ar Ramadi—what happened to you, how you ended up in Iraq, how you came back, how you were jailed.
CAMILO MEJIA: I ended up in Iraq because about four months before my—the end of my service, I was stop-loss, which means that my contract was involuntarily extended. And I deployed to Iraq in April of 2003. And although I had deployed with a political opposition to the war, I was not necessarily—I did not have the moral strength needed to take a stance against it.
But when I arrived in Iraq, the first mission we had was one in which we kept prisoners sleep-deprived for periods of up to three days in order to soften them up for interrogation. And because of the way that our leadership was conducting itself, driven mostly by ambition and with total disregard for the lives of civilians, we ended up killing a lot of unarmed people. And a lot of these things were things that could have been prevented, but that were not, not because soldiers on the ground are bad apples or wake up one day as monsters, but because there’s a policy behind everything that we do that is criminal.
So, upon my return to the United States on a two-week furlough, I decided that I could not go back to Iraq in good conscience. And I, instead of going back, began to work on a conscientious objector claim and to put together a case to bring before a military tribunal. And I surrendered, and I went public and I denounced the war. And two months after my surrender, I was tried by a court-martial and found guilty of desertion and sent to jail on a one-year sentence and demoted from staff sergeant to private and given a bad-conduct discharge, which I am appealing. And then, after nine months in jail—I got out three months earlier because of good conduct—I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, and I have been active with the organization ever since.
AMY GOODMAN: Your family is from Nicaragua, Camilo Mejia. There is a very interesting juxtaposition of events here right now. Winter Soldier, the testimony that’s taking place this weekend here just outside Washington, and late last night, for only the sixth time in history, Congress held a secret session that was completely closed. The last time it was held was 1983, when Congress was debating supporting the Contras in Nicaragua.
CAMILO MEJIA: Right. My father is from Nicaragua. My mother is from Costa Rica. Both were really involved in the resistance to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Samosa. And that is a background that I have with me, but I believe that the thing that had the most influence on me was the fact that they always stood for their principles, and I believe that that’s exactly what everyone who is testifying at these hearings is doing. You know, we’re not really driven by a political agenda, but we’re driven by, you know, our human nature, you know, the nature that tells you that you should not travel halfway across the world to brutalize a country for no reason.
AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Mejia is a former Army staff sergeant, Army guard from Florida, here at the Winter Soldier, the accounts that will be given this weekend of the occupations and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book about his experience has just come out on paperback that he wrote, The Road from ar Ramadi.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll be joined by David Cortright. He was there during the Vietnam War. He’ll talk about those original hearings. We will also be joined by Dennis Kucinich to talk about the secret session of Congress, the congressman from Cleveland. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from National Labor College just outside Washington, D.C. in Silver Spring. Hundreds of veterans, active-duty soldiers, soldiers who have just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan are here to testify in the second Winter Soldier hearing. We’re going to go back now, though, in time to February 1971 to the original Winter Soldier.
JOE BANGERT: The first day I got to Vietnam, I landed in Da Nang Air Base, got off the plane and hitchhiked on Highway 1 to my new unit—to my unit. I was picked up by a truckload of grunt Marines with two company grade officers, first lieutenants. We were about five miles down the road, where there were some Vietnamese children at the gateway to the village, and they gave the old finger gesture at us. It was understandable that they picked this up from the GIs there. They stopped the truck—they didn’t stop the truck, they slowed down a little bit. And it was just like response. The guys got up, including the lieutenants, and just blew all the kids away. It was about five or six kids blown away there. And then the truck just moved—continued down the hill. That was my first day in Vietnam.
In Quang Tri City, I had a friend who was—he was working with USAID. And one time he asked me would I like to accompany him to watch. He was an adviser with an ARVN group, and he asked me if I would like to accompany him into a village that I was familiar with to see how they act. So I went with him, and they didn’t find any enemy, but they found a woman with bandages. So she was questioned with about—she was questioned by six ARVNs, and the way that they questioned her was, since she had bandages, they shot her. She was hit about twenty times. So, after she was questioned and, of course, dead, this guy came over who was—and knowing him, he was a former major, he was in the service for twenty years, and he got hungry again and came back over working with USAID, Aid International Development—and he went over there and ripped her clothes off and took a knife and cut from her vagina all the way up—well, just about up to her breasts and pulled her organs out, completely out of her cavity, and threw them out. And then he stopped and knelt over and commenced to peel every bit of skin off her body and left her there as a sign for something or other.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the testimony from Winter Soldier, a hearing in February of 1971. It took place in Detroit. We’re joined by David Cortright right now. He is a Vietnam War veteran, author of the landmark book, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, now a professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Welcome to Democracy Now!.
DAVID CORTRIGHT: Good morning
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Cortright, tell us about these Winter Soldier hearings, the gory descriptions, the atrocities these soldiers are describing they engaged in themselves.
DAVID CORTRIGHT: Yeah, this was part of our experience during the GI movement, the resistance movement of the soldiers and veterans in the Vietnam era. And many of us who were part of that experience learned that what we had been told by our leaders was false, it was a lie, and what we saw on the ground was horrible. And our political leaders put the Armed Forces in a situation that was impossible. It was a criminal situation. The policy itself was a crime. Free-fire zones, the bombings, the destruction of villages that was a common part of the routine of our experience during Vietnam meant that soldiers were being asked to commit criminal acts. And those of us who were a part of that increasingly spoke out, and the original hearing in 1971 was a powerful and dramatic event, when more than 100, 150 veterans came and gave testimony.
I was still in the Army at the time. I didn’t participate. But I was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, and a couple months later, we had our own war crimes hearing among active-duty soldiers and recent veterans at Fort Bliss. And we had more than a dozen come forward and talk about what had happened. One fellow had been a tail gunner in a helicopter, and he was particularly irate about the fact that Lieutenant Calley—Lieutenant Calley had been indicted for being involved with the My Lai Massacre. And this soldier said, "If Calley was guilty, I was guilty, because what I was told to do was to fly over territory and shoot anything that moved. So if there was a farmer out there with a water buffalo, we shot him. I was asked to do criminal acts while I was in Vietnam, and the whole policy was criminal." So it was a powerful, but important, testimony that our soldiers gave about the nature of this war, trying to wake up our country to the nature of this kind of policy.
AMY GOODMAN: What effect did the Winter Soldier hearing have? We know about it, 2004, because John Kerry ran for president, and he had attended, though not testified, at the Winter Soldier hearing in Detroit.
DAVID CORTRIGHT: Well, I think the voice of the Vietnam veterans was critical to trying to change public opinion. We found later on that the Nixon administration was extremely upset about the VVAW, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The whole spy operation that became Watergate was in part motivated by an attempt to undermine the voice and the legitimacy of the veterans.
But we spoke with real authority. We were there on the ground. We could tell the truth to the American people about what was going on, and that voice was critically important in helping to broaden public understanding of the nature of the war, helped to build antiwar opposition. I think that the voice of the veterans and the soldiers was critically important to forcing our political leaders to end that war. We know that Nixon and company ended the war, not because they saw the folly of what the United States had done or they had changed their imperial policies; they changed the policy because the American people would not stand for it any more, and the soldiers and the veterans who had actually fought the war spoke out to say we are not going to participate in this kind of policy any longer.
AMY GOODMAN: When did the tide turn for soldiers? When was the voice—when did it become the loudest in the Vietnam War?
DAVID CORTRIGHT: Well, if you look at the history of the GI movement, it really began to take off in 1968, and I think it was the whole Tet experience, when we had been told that there was going to be progress, we were achieving the light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam, and then along came Tet. The worst year of the war was 1968.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain Tet.
DAVID CORTRIGHT: Tet was the uprising, the offensive of the Vietnam resistance to the United States in late January, early February 1968, massive attack all across South Vietnam. It put the lie to what the administration had said about how we’re winning this war. And it was the worst period for the American military. At one point, there were as many as 500 American soldiers dying every week in combat in Vietnam during this period right after Tet in the first half of ’68. So it was the worst period, and it really brought forward to all of us the lie that we had been told and the—we saw the experience.
So the GI movement really took off in ’68 in the Army and the Marine Corps, in particular. And then later on, in ’69 and ’70, when the government shifted to an intensified air war, then we saw growing resistance in the Navy and in the Air Force. So from the period ’68 to ’72, there was a very widespread opposition movement in the military in bases all over the world, in ships, in aircraft carriers. It was really a very widespread phenomenon.
AMY GOODMAN: David Cortright, the significance of what’s happening today, Winter Soldier II, I guess you could say?
DAVID CORTRIGHT: We’re seeing a similar experience. The soldiers and veterans who have been there to Iraq and Afghanistan can see the lie of what we’ve been told. They’re starting to speak out. They’re acting again as the conscience of our nation, trying to alert our citizens that this war—these wars are wrong and that we need a different policy: we have to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And more fundamentally, we need to end this whole imperial war system that we have in America. We thought we had learned the lesson thirty-five years ago about Vietnam, but our leaders have dragged us again into another series of unjust, illegal wars, and the veterans are saying we have to stop this way of doing business.
AMY GOODMAN: David Cortright, thanks for joining us, now a professor of peace studies at University of Notre Dame, Vietnam-era soldier, author of the landmark book, Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’re going to go to Congressman Kucinich to get the latest on the secret congressional session that was held last night for the sixth time in history. But first, we’re going to go back to the first Winter Soldier.
SCOTT CAMILE: The calling in of artillery for games, the way it was worked would be the mortar forward observers would call in—we’d pick out certain houses in villages, friendly villages, and the mortar forward observers would call in mortars until they destroyed that house, and then the artillery forward observer would call in artillery until he destroyed another house, and whoever used the least amount of artillery, they won. And then, when we got back, someone would have to buy someone else beers.
And I saw one case where there were two prisoners, and one prisoner was staked out on the ground, and he was cut open while he was alive, and part of his insides were cut out. And they told the other prisoner if he didn’t tell them what they wanted to know, that they would kill him. And I don’t know what he said, because he spoke in Vietnamese, but then they killed him after that anyway.
MODERATOR: Were these primarily civilians, or do you believe that they were—or do you know that they were actual NVA?
SCOTT CAMILE: The way that we distinguished between civilians and VC, VC had weapons and civilians didn’t, and anybody that was dead was considered a VC. If you killed someone, they said, "How do you know he’s a VC?" The general reply would be, "He’s dead," and that was sufficient.
The cutting off of heads—on Operation Stone, there was a lieutenant colonel there, and two people had their heads cut off and put on stakes and stuck in the middle of the field. And we were notified that there were press covering the operation and that we couldn’t do that anymore.
I saw one case where a woman was shot by a sniper, one of our snipers. And when we got up to her, she was asking for water. And the lieutenant said to kill her. So he ripped off her clothes, they stabbed her in both breasts, they spread her eagle and shoved an E- tool up her vagina—an entrenching tool—and she was still asking for water. And then they took that out, and they used a tree limb, and then she was shot.
MODERATOR: Did the men in the—in your outfit, did they seem to think that it was alright to do anything to the Vietnamese?
SCOTT CAMILE: It wasn’t like they were humans, like we were—you know, we were conditioned to believe that, you know, this was for the good of the nation, the good of our country, and anything we did was OK. And like, when you shot someone, you didn’t think you were shooting a human. They were a gook or a Commie, and it was OK.
AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the hearing from February 1971 in Detroit, Winter Soldier, where hundreds of soldiers gathered—at that time, it was Vietnam—talking about the atrocities they themselves had engaged in in Vietnam. We, today, are in Silver Spring, Maryland for Winter Soldier for the testimony, for the accounts of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers and veterans who have come to talk about their own experiences.
AMY GOODMAN: We are broadcasting from National Labor College, where hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers, veterans have gathered to tell their stories of war and occupation, as we turn now to the issue of resistance within the military. Up until last week, Phil Aliff was an active-duty soldier with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at Fort Drum in New York. He served nearly a year in Iraq in Fallujah and the city of Abu Ghraib. Last year, he refused to return to Iraq with his unit. He’s been actively organizing soldiers at Fort Drum to oppose the war.
Phil Aliff, welcome to Democracy Now!
PHIL ALIFF: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: You got out on Friday?
PHIL ALIFF: Yes. Yes, I did. I was released from my contract, ETS, which is end of term of service. And so, I finished my three years, and they let me out.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about your time in Iraq at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah.
PHIL ALIFF: Yes. I went to Abu Ghraib City in August of 2005. And when I got there, it had been a few years after the war had started, and we were still seeing the insurgency actually grow larger through those years. And I was right outside of the prison, and so the detainees that we would take from missions would go directly to the prison. And I think that was the thing that people were scared of most in the city, was going to Abu Ghraib prison.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about organizing within the military.
PHIL ALIFF: Organizing in the military, especially for Iraq Veterans Against the War, is incredibly important, because we see the most social power within the antiwar movement being in the hands of GIs and veterans, because for a GI to be able to throw down their weapon and say "I’m not going to fight an illegal war" is the most important aspect, to us, of organizing. And so, being at Fort Drum, being at a place where it’s the most heavily deployed unit in the US military, to be able organize active resistance is key. We’ve actually won a lot of battles for soldiers there, including healthcare benefits, benefits with the VA, and other things.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the key issues, Phil Aliff?
PHIL ALIFF: The key issues are the fact that we’re here today to show that soldiers are not committing these crimes and atrocities in Iraq individually; it’s actually a policy from the top. From the top general to the US President, they’re all implicit. And by sending soldiers to go and fight and die in an illegal war is causing this country to become, you know, polarized, go into a crisis. And so, for us to be able to speak out on our experiences, I think, is most important, to be able to articulate our opposition to the war for the American people and be able to show them that this is something from the top. These atrocities—Abu Ghraib, Haditha—are policies of the US government and not individual soldiers.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the attitude of most soldiers you’ve talked to? What is the attitude at Fort Drum, in Fallujah, where you were in the city of Abu Ghraib?
PHIL ALIFF: The attitude right now is that a lot of soldiers are going back on their third, fourth, fifth deployment, and they’re not seeing any progress. The biggest thing that I heard from soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan was that, you know, I went there, I was told that we were going to be rebuilding the country, and the worst thing to come back to is knowing that we made no progress in the country, that conditions were the same from when we got there ’til when we left. And so, I think that there is a lot of demoralization within the military. I think that’s one of the largest problems. And I think that soldiers right now are looking for another option; they’re looking for something else. The US military is having a very hard time with retention right now, trying to keep people in. And so, for us to be able to bring our brothers and sisters home, I think that that is the most important thing to them right now.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the attitude of your superiors in the military?
PHIL ALIFF: The superiors in the military are very threatened by what we’re doing, because of the fact that we have a voice that we never had—that we didn’t have, you know, a few years ago. We have a way of actually articulating our opposition to the war as veterans, as active-duty members, who have actually been to Iraq and Afghanistan. And so, for the people that they’re sending over there to fight to say that this is—this war is wrong, it’s immoral, it’s illegal, I think is most threatening to them. And it shows the kind of social power that we have that they’re willing to try to discredit us or speak out against us.
AMY GOODMAN: Phil Aliff, the issues of healthcare and veterans?
PHIL ALIFF: Veterans’ healthcare right now is a crisis within the US military and the VA. Traumatic brain injury and PTSD, the two signature wounds of the war, are not being treated at the rate that they should. Soldiers are coming back, and they’re not being screened after ninety days for post-traumatic stress disorder, and there’s no screening for TBI at Fort Drum right now for every soldier coming home. And so, that’s what we want to win, because the crisis right now is so bad that it may take soldiers two years to get VA benefits. And a lot of soldiers are actually missing benefits from the Army, because they’re being discharged for—they’re either being chaptered for personality disorders and pre-existing conditions, or they’re being just let out with no screening at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Your plans this weekend?
PHIL ALIFF: My plans this weekend is to speak out on the war about my experiences and to speak about GI resistance to the American people, because I think that, you know, we’re here today to inspire America, we’re here today to build a movement to end this war. And I think that by creating a dialogue, by creating a way of expressing our opposition, we’re actually creating a spark for the rest of the movement to be able to go forward and win the end to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
AMY GOODMAN: You were an Army corporal?
PHIL ALIFF: Yes, ma’am, I was.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?
PHIL ALIFF: I’m twenty-one years old.
AMY GOODMAN: You were in the military for how long?
PHIL ALIFF: I was in the military for three-and-a-half years.
AMY GOODMAN: Phil Aliff, I want to thank you for being with us, just out, released on Friday. Phil Aliff, here at the National Labor College for Winter Soldier. As we go back again to 1971, the original Winter Soldier.
NATHAN HALE: I arrived at the base camp of the 1st—of the 1st Cav., which is Hill 29. When I arrived there, my S-2, a captain, told me that my job was to elicit information. This meant that I could elicit information in any means possible. He told me that I could use any technique I can think of, and the idea is "Don’t get caught." And what he meant was, I could beat these people, I could cut 'em, I could probably shoot ’em—I never shot anyone—but I could use any means possible to get information; just don’t beat them in the presence of a non-unit member or person. That’s someone like a visiting officer or perhaps the Red Cross. And I personally used clubs, rifle butts, pistols, knives, and this was always done at Hill 29.
The important point here is that everything I did was always monitored. An interrogator is always monitored. I was monitored by an MP sergeant at Hill 29, who often helped me in my interrogations.
AMY GOODMAN: That was 1971, Detroit, Howard Johnson’s in Detroit. Several Vietnam veterans who testified at the original Winter Soldier hearings are in attendance this weekend, including Bill Perry, longtime member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He served as a combat paratrooper in Vietnam, was wounded in action, suffers from combat PTSD, post-traumatic stress.
Bill Perry, welcome to Democracy Now!
BILL PERRY: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
AMY GOODMAN: So it was a Howard Johnson’s in Detroit. How did it happen then?
BILL PERRY: It was interesting. Eleven of us from Philadelphia were shanghaied pretty much by Dr. Kenny Campbell—teaches at the University of Delaware now—and Dr. Jon Bjornson, who was a—at the time, he was a major and a surgeon in the Army, but he eventually morphed into being a shrink, because he worked with Dr. Bobby Jay Lifton and Dr. Chaim Shatan on developing what we were experiencing in collective situations, in communal situations, dealing with our post-traumatic stress disorder.
Back then, they called it—I mean, it originally was battle fatigue and things like that, and it became Vietnam Syndrome, then post-traumatic stress syndrome. And then, after they observed us and after they took notes on us, after they studied us and did empirical research, it became post-traumatic stress disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III, which has now been pushed up to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV, and we’ve got number five coming out next year. So it’s established and accepted worldwide and studied worldwide, and it’s a heck of a thing. It’s been out there for quite a few millennia. You know, Homer with the Iliad and the Odyssey, and all them cats back in the day, they all had it. You know, we’ve had it all through history.
AMY GOODMAN: And how has it affected you?
BILL PERRY: How has it affected me? It has affected me deeply. It’s gotten me for forty years opposing what I consider to be unjust occupations, nasty, unnecessary wars. And it’s gotten—
AMY GOODMAN: But how—post-traumatic stress.
BILL PERRY: It’s gotten to the point, personally, where it was really difficult for me to hold a job for any length of time. I did thirty years in building trades, but I was used oftentimes as a goon. I had problems. I had—I had long-term employment problems. And a lot of times when you have to listen to a second lieutenant, what we used to call "butter bar," nothing, you know, compared to like a platoon sergeant or a staff sergeant, and all of a sudden you’re out in the real life and you’re on a job, maybe on a concrete pourer, maybe you’re doing something—some high bridge work or something, and you’ve got some young snot-nose who’s related to the family or tied into the contractor’s family trying to tell you what to do, and all you want to do is backhand him, you know, or throw him off whatever you’re on, you know, punch him out, knock him out. You lose jobs really quick.
So there’s ways, fortunately, if you’re politically active [inaudible], they know how to utilize your temper, know how to utilize your political aggressiveness, let’s say. But the way—other than anger and some of the more frightening things that come out of the shock and the horror of war, on my particular case is my ability, my desire to give back to fellow GIs. We all took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, and I really respect that. Anyone who signs up for something and keeps their end of the bargain and understands what the Constitution is all about, who understands the commander-in-chief was violating the Constitution, when we have these kind of people who put their neck out like that and keep their end of the deal, I have to respect them and have to respect and help them get over what the policy has done to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Perry, what are you advising soldiers, vets who are testifying this weekend?
BILL PERRY: Well, we all come out of a society that’s entrenched in the Judeo-Christian culture. And the other ten percent of society that’s not particularly Judeo-Christian also believes in what we call the Fifth Commandment: Thou shall not kill. No matter how big a battery of shrinks, how big a battery of behaviorists, how big a group of psychiatrists, can make a good human being who comes up and believing in "Thou shall not kill" into a cold-blooded killing machine, we can salvage things. We can bring you back, you know, to where you were prior to going in. We can bring you back to what we all believed in back in the day coming up.
AMY GOODMAN: Bill Perry, we’re going to go back to 1971, once again, to Winter Soldier, the soldiers who testified, used pictures to illustrate what they were saying.
CARL RIPPBERGER: The first slide you’re going to see shows a prisoner of war. And the way that they tried to get him to talk is by making him stand in front of a pile of Viet Cong bodies that we had picked up.
It’s the same POW, was forced to sit for probably from six to eight hours by this pile of bodies in the hot sun.
It’s a shot of five or six GIs going through the bodies, looking for souvenirs.
In this picture, there’s a lieutenant and a captain overlooking what’s going on.
This is a shot of our interrogator. He took his M-16. He took him and forced him into this prisoner’s nose, and he twisted him, It’s extremely painful.
MODERATOR: Officers were present at all times during this?
CARL RIPPBERGER: Yes, field grade officers were present—were present.
And the next slide is a slide of myself. I’m extremely shameful of it. I’m showing it in hopes that none of you people that have never been involved ever let this happen to you. Don’t ever let your government do this to you. It’s me. I’m holding a dead body, smiling. Everyone in our platoon took two bodies, put them on the back ramp, drove them through a village for show, and dumped them off at the edge of the village.
AMY GOODMAN: Winter Soldier, testimony in 1971, February, in Detroit. We’re here in 2008 in Silver Spring National Labor College, Winter Soldier once again, accounts of occupation and war in Afghanistan and Iraq by soldiers who have gathered here and vets.
Tanya Austin is with us right now. She was active-duty until 2004. She was an Arabic linguist. She is with Iraq Veterans Against the War and will be testifying.
TANYA AUSTIN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up today’s show, what will you be saying this weekend?
TANYA AUSTIN: I’m going to be testifying about the VA health system and how the way to deal with PTSD is first by just over-medicating and not giving the chance to have someone to talk to, because there are too many soldiers who need counseling and not enough counselors. So, me, personally, it was a year after being medicated before I had a chance to actually speak with someone. And they actually put me on a wrong medication that caused an increase in suicidal feelings, because a lot of antidepressants do that. Luckily, I was able to get off of that one and onto something else. But it’s just to show how the VA is so under-equipped to be dealing with today’s soldiers. I mean, people come back from Iraq, Afghanistan or even just duty here in the United States, and they don’t have the outlet in the room in the VA in order to get the treatment they need and deserve.
AMY GOODMAN: Where did you serve?
TANYA AUSTIN: I served stateside. I can’t say more than that, because I was in Military Intelligence.
AMY GOODMAN: Arab linguist.
TANYA AUSTIN: Yes, I was. I was an Arabic linguist.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about your time served?
TANYA AUSTIN: I’m proud of what I did to serve my country, do not like what we are doing, obviously, by being here.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re also giving someone else’s testimony.
TANYA AUSTIN: Yes, I am. I’m going to be giving testimony of someone who was in the Coast Guard who was raped, and the Coast Guard decided to cover it up and actually discharge her, because she wouldn’t drop the charges. She is not able to give her own testimony because of ongoing legal matters. But it’s a very heart-wrenching story how the Coast Guard covered up her rape and also the fact that she was beaten by one of her fellow shipmates.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about those who say this is the greatest outrage, for soldiers to be speaking out against their service?
TANYA AUSTIN: I think it’s just the actual 100 percent opposite of that. There’s no one who knows better than the soldiers. No one knows better than those of us who have served in today’s military, who have seen what we’ve seen, heard what we’ve heard and done what we’ve done. And for all of us that are here, I see nothing more than absolute patriotism by coming out and speaking out about what we see and what we’ve done.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you afraid of suffering repercussions from within the military?
TANYA AUSTIN: No, because I know what I’m doing is right. And doing what is right and what is easy is often two different things.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Tanya Austin, for joining us, in Military—was in Military Intelligence—
TANYA AUSTIN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —Arab linguist here at Winter Soldier, the accounts that are going to be given today, all day today, Saturday and Sunday by soldiers, veterans, about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is going to be broadcast live throughout the day at ivaw.org. That’s Iraq Veterans Against the War (dot) org. Pacifica Radio stations will be running it, and affiliates. Free Speech TV, as well, Channel 9415 of DISH Network, will be broadcasting these hearings, gavel to gavel. And Democracy Now! will continue to bring you what happened throughout the weekend next week.