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 Shahzad Chaudhary, was published by Politics Daily, October 30, 2009
Sitting in the front row at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, directly in sight of committee Chairman John Kerry, two women discreetly held up two pink cardboard signs that read "U.S. War = Terrorism" and "Drone Attacks Kill Civilians."
The women, Toby Blome and Martha Hubert, are part of Code Pink, a nationwide antiwar group that formed in 2002. They were quietly protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as former CIA agent Robert Grenier testified that a significant increase in troops is required to fend off al-Qaida in the latter country. Since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, Code Pink protesters had been a common, often colorful, presence on Capitol Hill.
But starting in 2006, when the Democrats took control of Congress, Code Pink and other antiwar groups lessened their activity. After Barack Obama was elected president, the antiwar movement stagnated.
"Fewer and fewer people were showing up for national meetings, and the fundraising dried up to almost nothing," said Susan Lamont, former president of the board of directors of the now defunct "Not in Our Name" antiwar group. Lamont said such organizations had assumed that Obama's election would mean a speedy withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, but they placed too much hope in him, considering his calls for a new focus on the Afghanistan war.
"However, Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center, said that people got what they wanted from Obama. "The protests that were associated with the war in Iraq have declined, but that's because the war in Iraq is winding down," he said. Keeter said it's important to makes a distinction between the general public and antiwar movement. "Generally speaking, Americans have never been much on movements," he said.
"The public, according to Keeter, was staunchly opposed to the war in Iraq, but not the one in Afghanistan. "In public opinion, only a minority opposed" both, he said. So when Obama announced the Iraq withdrawal timetable, many people were satisfied and no longer saw the need to actively protest. But there were other factors in the decline of the antiwar movement, according to Eric Garris, director and founder of Antiwar.com. He cited a combination of war fatigue, domestic issues taking the forefront in public debate and the Bush administration leaving office.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the antiwar movement during the Bush administration was more anti-Bush than antiwar," said Garris, who added that Americans are more occupied with issues such as health care reform and the economic crisis. And many people were disillusioned after years of protesting without results.
With waning public approval of the Afghanistan war, however, antiwar groups have noticed an increase in support. "We've had a lot of decentralized action in October," said Gael Murphy, co-founder of Code Pink.
Antiwar actions such as the committee hearing protest, in which Blome and Hubert participated in earlier this month, have slowly started to reemerge. So far this year there have been eight official "disruption of Congress" arrests, compared with only four in all of 2008, according to Capitol Hill Police. These types of protests are likely to increase, said Murphy.
"There is a growing dissatisfaction with Obama's foreign policy and people are mobilizing," she said. "And I think we're going to see much more activity in the fall."
This article, by Greg Grant, was posted to Military.com, October 26, 2009
Sen. John Kerry told a Washington audience today that Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s call for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign reaches “too far, too fast.” Instead, Kerry called for a more “narrowly focused” counterinsurgency strategy that would dial down U.S. war aims, forge a closer alliance with Afghan ethnic groups that reject the mostly Pashtun based insurgency, reduce the U.S. military effort to just the restive southern and eastern parts of the country and use the power of the U.S. dollar to peel away Taliban fighters motivated more by money than an extremist ideology.
Speaking to a packed house at the Council on Foreign Relations Monday, Kerry lashed out at the Bush administration for its neglect and “gross mishandling” of the war in Afghanistan for nearly eight years and allowing the Taliban to regain a foothold in the country. Fresh from saving the Afghan political process through many hours spent cajoling and convincing Afghan president Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election, Kerry said a more narrowly defined war there is winnable, but requires a major shift in strategy.
Policymakers and the news media have become overly focused on whether the Obama administration will grant McChrystal his request for more troops, a debate that misses the larger point, Kerry said. Since progress in Afghanistan will only come once people at the village level see real improvements in their everyday lives, what is needed are many more civilian experts in rural development, not tens of thousands more infantry.
Kerry said the “cornerstone” of U.S. strategy should be building an Afghan military and “governance” capacity that is just good enough so that responsibility for the country’s security can be transferred to the Afghan government and American troops can be withdrawn. Success in Afghanistan means transferring that responsibility as soon as possible while also leaving behind a country that cannot again become a safe haven for Al Qaeda. Defeating the Taliban is not a requirement, he said, nor is establishing a “flawless democracy.” Many Taliban fighters can be bought off and he put the number of irreconcilables at no more than 3,000 to 4,000.
While he would back sending “some” additional troops to reverse the Taliban gains and regain the initiative, he said troop levels must be tied to real measures of progress, such as combating the Kabul government’s legendary corruption and demonstrating to the Afghan people that their government has their interests in mind. American commanders must also determine if there are enough Afghan troops to partner with U.S. units. While some assessments say there are 92,000 soldiers in the Afghan army, Kerry said U.S. commanders in Afghanistan said the real number of effectives is closer to 50,000.
There are not enough U.S., NATO and Afghan troops to pursue a population centric counterinsurgency across the entire country, he said, an effort that would require some 600,000 troops, if one strictly adheres to counterinsurgency math. Rolling back the Taliban doesn’t require anywhere near that number of counterinsurgents, he said, as much of the country, particularly in the north and west, are already hostile to the insurgents. Kerry said the military should work more closely with the tribes and build up a tribal intelligence network, particularly among the Pashtuns; he did not say how the military, which has been trying to do just that since 2001, should pull it off.
Kerry said NATO countries must beef up their troop presence and better unify their command structure.
This article, by Pascal Zachary, was posted to In These Times, October 9. 2009.
For all the talk of polarization and partisanship in U.S. politics, what’s remarkable is the extent to which President Obama has continued policies and practices of his predecessor, George Bush, in domestic economics and military affairs.
Economically, Obama has continued the bailout of Wall Street, maintained Bush-era tax cuts, pursued “stimulus” through large deficit spending and re-appointed Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman who was a Bush favorite.
In defense, Obama has broken with Bush on a few critical matters, notably by canceling expensive weapons systems and dropping (in September) an aggressive plan to impose a “missile shield” in Eastern Europe that Russia intensely opposed. Yet Obama has carried over Bush’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates; essentially stuck with Bush timetables on Iraq; and maintained historically record levels of Pentagon spending. The president has continued the war in Afghanistan, raising the number of American combat troops. In a speech on August 17, Obama even tried to construct a moral basis for the war, described it as “not a war of choice,” but “a war of necessity.” And as a necessary war, “a war worth fighting,” Obama has declared that only through the democratization of Afghanistan can the terrorist threat to the United States—in the form of al Qaeda—be eliminated from the country.
Further escalation of the war in Afghanistan is no sure thing, however. Having voiced support for increasing combat troops earlier in his presidency, in September Obama seemed torn between three possibilities: escalation, muddling through with the current military footprint or shifting to a greatly “limited” combat mission that would concentrate on countering terrorists targeting the United States, rather than fighting the insurgent Taliban.
Obama’s decision is complicated by his earlier decision to ask his top Afghan military commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to make the case for escalation. McChrystal is reportedly prepared to ask for an additional 40,000 U.S. troops—beyond the 68,000 American soldiers already approved to fight in Afghanistan.
While the question of whether or not the United States sends more troops to Afghanistan defines the current debate over the war, respected Democratic voices, such as Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Vice President Joseph Biden, are quietly stumping for a third way: limited war in Afghan, which would concentrate on countering terrorists and depend on a relatively small number of conventional combat troops. The “limited” advocates, who Obama seemingly ignored until recently, are offering the president a stark choice between escalating—and creating a new Vietnam-style quagmire—and a sharp reduction of ground troops, which would likely reduce both American deaths and the cost of the war. Supporters of this approach include conservative columnist George Will, who in a September column nicely summarized the “limited” war approach. “Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy,” Will wrote. “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”
A third way
That escalation in Afghanistan is no longer viewed as inevitable is welcome. Yet missing from the debate is any serious consideration of complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. No single voice in the foreign policy establishment supports the speedy exit of combat forces, though even McChrystal concedes that the United States might soon experience involuntary withdrawal—in total defeat. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” he wrote in his confidential assessment of the war, leaked to the Washington Post.
To be sure, the United States has already lost the war in meaningful ways. The month of October marks eight years of U.S. combat in Afghanistan. More than 800 American soldiers have died—and alarmingly more than one quarter of that total died in the past three months alone. Tens of billions of dollars have been spent since the war began. The Afghan government this summer presided over a fraudulent national election. Illegal opium production has exploded since 2001; for 2008, the United Nations valued Afghan drug exports at $3 billion. Polls show less than 40 percent of Americans favor the war in Afghanistan, the lowest level of support since the start of the war.
Calling for complete withdrawal, phased or immediate, remains a lonely position, endorsed by such independent foreign policy experts as Andrew J. Bacevich, of Boston University, and Robert Naiman, coordinator of Just Foreign Policy, an activist group. Democratic Party leaders, while fretting over parallels between an Afghan quagmire and the Vietnam War that doomed Lyndon Johnson’s presidency in the ’60s, are objecting to escalation. Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-Mich.) opposition to sending more troops, while trying to put limits on U.S. costs in the war, still holds fast to the notion that Afghan institutions, including the army, can be sufficiently strengthened to hold off the Taliban. Even many progressive advocacy groups, such as MoveOn, haven’t made rapid withdrawal form Afghanistan a high priority, perhaps fearing that by breaking with the president on war, they will weaken his ability to push through progressive domestic legislation like healthcare reform. But Code Pink, an influential peace group, has been calling on the president to “focus on negotiations and bringing our troops home.”
Getting the mission right
Yet the case for withdrawing from Afghanistan makes tactical, strategic and moral sense, chiefly because legitimate U.S. security needs can be achieved more effectively through other means. As Bacevich has written, “In Afghanistan today, the United States and its allies are using the wrong means to vigorously pursue the wrong mission.”
If there is a “right” mission in Afghanistan, it can only be to deny al-Qaeda and its friends the opportunity to attack Americans at home and abroad. After eight years in Afghanistan, U.S. troops (aided by much smaller forces from Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy and other “allied” countries) haven’t accomplished this. Yet targeted attacks by U.S. and allied forces are killing terrorists, highlighting an alternative to ground troops and an Afghan quagmire.
In September, U.S. military forces in Somalia killed Saleh Nabhan, the man believed to be responsible for attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania. Predator drones, “robot” aircraft controlled from a distance by U.S. technicians, have killed al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan.
The use of assassination squads and remote-controlled killer planes present their own practical and moral problems. The wrong people can be killed, for instance. And such attacks require detailed knowledge of the movements of the targets. Some of the declared “enemies,” meanwhile, such as Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban government shattered by U.S. air strikes beginning on Oct. 7, 2001, might be worth negotiating with instead of killing. Omar remains head of the insurgency, a popular hero and important to any negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. Withdrawal of U.S. troops would be linked to progress in peace negotiation—and an acceptance that the Taliban, in some form, will play some role, if not a decisive role, in a new Afghan government.
An end to war in Afghanistan—and increased stability as a consequence of peaceful co-existence with the Taliban—would benefit Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants are believed to be living in a remote city. Secular political forces in Pakistan, which possesses nuclear weapons, are battling to keep the country out of the hands of religious fundamentalists who already exert profound influence. Anti-American feeling is extraordinarily high in Pakistan; even secular elites blame Americans for inflaming and exaggerating their domestic problems. The U.S. government, which is currently debating how much to increase financial assistance to Pakistan, would provide more effective help without troops in Afghanistan.
A comprehensive strategy
Defenders of escalation say that Afghanistan needs to be reformed and that the aim of U.S. intervention is to create a democratic society, where Afghanis are safe and free. The premise of a democratic Afghanistan informs McChrystal’s view of war aims; the commander’s edifice of escalation depends, he writes (weirdly echoing Hegel), on identifying “the objective will of the [Afghan] people.” In March, Obama gave powerful expression to this position when he announced his “comprehensive” strategy for Afghanistan. While his highest goal was to stop the use of the country as a terrorist staging ground, his next two were classic nation-building goals: to promote a more capable, accountable, and effective government in Afghanistan and a national army that can ultimately take over “counter-insurgency” efforts from Americans.
In the arena of democratization, the American effort was marred by last month’s flawed elections, which saw President Hamid Karzai steal enough votes to claim victory (there’s a recount now underway). The election fiasco pushed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an influential Democrat, to predict Afghanistan “will remain [a] tribal entity.” Such a place would require a strong U.S. military presence to hold together and (perhaps) the emergence of a homegrown dictator ruling the country with a “strong hand.”
Yet the very presence of American troops inflames ethnic differences.
Afghans view Americans as invaders and occupiers, and their very presence galvanizes opponents, creating more resistance. As Afghan army spokesman Zahir Azimi has said, “Where [American] forces are fighting, people think it is incumbent on them to resist the occupiers and infidels.” The self-perpetuating nature of the conflict explains the profound pessimism expressed by some with deep experience in the region. British Gen. David Richards, who served in Afghanistan, said in August that stabilizing the country could take 40 years. While such predictions are dismissed as hysterical, they are simply the logical extension of Levin’s insistence that the United States “increase and accelerate our efforts to support the Afghan security forces in their efforts to become self-sufficient in delivering security to their nation.” These efforts at self-reliance inevitably involve a significant American presence on the ground, which in turn fuels the very cycle that Levin insists he wants to avoid: a costly quagmire.
The alternative to a McChrystal escalation or a Levin quagmire requires no leap into the unknown but rather recognition of limits of American power and the legacy of Afghan history. The script for withdrawal is essentially already written—in Iraq, of all places. For the sake of temporary peace, Iraq has essentially been partitioned into three “sub-countries,” two of which are essentially ethnic enclaves. The same could be done in Afghanistan—though the number of sub-divisions could be larger, and acceptance of Taliban rule over some of them would be required. In this scenario, a phased pullout of U.S. forces could accompany the negotiated “government of national unity,” which—like in Iraq—would preserve the “notional” nation of Afghanistan while effectively deconstructing the territory into more manageable pieces.
The United States once blithely dealt with the Taliban (Dick Cheney, after all, famously met with the Taliban prior to bin Laden’s attacks). While retaining the right to attack al Qaeda on Afghan soil, the Obama administration could tolerate Taliban rule if the result of a stable Afghanistan was to free more resources and attention to Pakistan’s urgent security issues. The embrace of realism could well co-evolve with the re-emergence of a moral center to American foreign policy.
Under this scenario, withdrawal of American troops would not mean the end of military actions on Afghan soil. As advocates of “limited” war argue, attacks could still be made from Predator drones based elsewhere. But air strikes and attacks by U.S. “special forces” on Afghan soil risk undermining any government of national unity and the pretense that the United States has halted its war on the Taliban.
For President Obama, the stakes are high. His young presidency is on the line. Perhaps because his secretary of defense, Gates, is a Republican, Obama has personalized the decision on Afghan strategy to a dangerous degree. Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. By deciding to reduce, if not altogether remove, U.S. combat troops from the country, the president will take a step towards the moral high ground that he so often desperately seeks to inhabit.
Morality must return to the center of America’s relations with the world. Afghanistan could become, as Obama likes to say, “a teaching moment,” for this president and his wider constituency, the citizens of the planet. The Bush presidency damaged both the image of the United States as a role model for promoters of democratization around the world, and further entrenched a darker counter-view of America as a reactionary force in world affairs. The Obama presidency creates an opening to restore the brighter side. In continuing the war in Afghanistan, Obama risks destroying his chances to redeem the United States in the eyes of the world. By ending the Afghan war, quickly and decisively, the president will match his rhetoric of hope with reality. He will also save U.S. lives and create new openings for negotiation, diplomacy and regional solutions to problems in distant lands.
This review, by Penelope Andrew, was posted to CriticalWomen.net, Februuary 10, 2009
Thirty-six years ago and about a minute before she was smeared and dubbed “Hanoi Jane,” Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and six of their “trouble-making” friends were the subject of a documentary film called FTA. They formed a touring company of activist actors, comedians, singers, and writers who performed in coffeehouses and other venues as close as possible to U.S. military bases in the states and later across the Pacific Rim. They were the thinking troops’ troupe, an anti-USO show, and an alternative to Bob Hope who had previously cornered the market on entertaining the military.
Recently, the IFC Center—the art house Villagers love so well--held two special screenings of this little known documentary by the late director (and incidentally, the first female member of the Directors Guild of America) Francine Parker. It’s hardly been seen since its original release in 1972. FTA is a multi-purpose acronym and variously defined as “Free the Army,” “Free Theater Associates,” or, the soldiers’ favorite term, “F*ck the Army.”
Upon learning of the event, a community organizer from the 1960s, former SDS member, long-time friend of Tom Hayden and busy social worker to this very day cut to the heart of the matter in a phone message, “I am going to go. I’ll be late, so save me a seat. You’ve probably figured out by now that FTA is about Jane and Donald Sutherland’s anti-war tour back in the old 70s when we only had ONE war.”
It’s very interesting that FTA’s re-release follows, by about a month, the theatrical debut of its contemporary first-cousin, Theater of War (2008)—at The Film Forum--which documents the making of the Public Theater’s 2006 production of Mother Courage and Her Children with a cast led by Meryl Streep.
These celluloid monuments drive home the genius of two of the most potent, anti-war writers who ever lived: Dalton Trumbo and Berthold Brecht. Both appeared before the HUAC. Trumbo was jailed for 11 months on contempt charges for failing to name names, while Brecht literally waltzed his way through with a performance of very broken English with a snappy German accent. In Theater of War, one is treated to a large dose of Mother Courage by way of a new translation by Tony Kushner and a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the artistry of Streep finding her character in a fascinating rehearsal process.
By contrast, FTA is raw. It underscores how infectious was the movement of the 60s and 70s captured through a lens that focuses on: a naïve, fresh-faced Holly Near acting (albeit poorly, but with a lovely enthusiasm) the part of a privileged officer’s wife; the effectiveness of songs (“We Will Not Bow Down to Genocide”) sung simply by folk musician Len Chandler and ballads (“Dear Soldier, We Love You”) performed and written by the talented Rita Martinson; and poetry and skits by the rest of a dedicated cast who worked at fever pitch unencumbered by a need for perfection. The gifted comedian, social satirist and writer Paul Mooney was also part of the company. He participated in a panel with Fonda that introduced the earlier screening of FTA.
The “a spit and a prayer production” as Fonda lovingly calls it traveled a long way to reach American troops who were questioning their roles and actions as military men and women. FTA offered much needed support for those who joined the perilous ranks of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (for one of its most famous members, Senator John Kerry, it may well have cost him the presidency).
The troupe organized communities at home and abroad (just like our current president did in Chicago, it’s obviously an effective and infectious way of getting important things done) and managed to form bonds both small and large regardless of where it landed. There are scenes with Fonda and cast sitting down with individual soldiers: Black-Americans reporting racism and abuse by their white (aptly named) master sergeants; heartbreaking commentary by wounded, shell-shocked, white soldiers who wander the streets of Japan; and young women soldiers retelling stories of being cajoled into getting on “the Pill” for the implied purpose of servicing their male counterparts. The footage of concerts and large-scale demonstrations involving the local talent of organizers, labor unions and artist/activists in Hawaii, the Philippines, Okinawa and Japan is impressive.
In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, Donald Sutherland recites from Trumbo’s 1939, anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun about a WWI soldier, Joe Bonham—not the average Joe that Sarah Palin nauseated the American public with but an extraordinary Joe--who has been maimed and disfigured beyond human recognition. One could hear a pin drop in the audience as the atmosphere filled with the fear all nightmares bring coupled with the majesty that occurs when a true artistic moment emerges. Sutherland—unlike the earthier James Cagney who performed the part of Joe in a radio adaptation of the book—speaks the part of the narrator trapped inside what is left of his own body on the scale of a preacher (perhaps reprising his role in Jules Fieffer’s Little Murders as the cynical 1972 review of FTA in The New York Times suggested), and one who is also well schooled in Shakespeare. Sutherland’s riveting oratory while clutching his beaten up copy of Johnny Got His Gun with its still-visible, iconic cover drew cheers from the audience and shouts of “Go Donald!”
Parker, Brecht and Trumbo may have passed on, but anti-war, anti-genocide and anti-poverty spirit continue in the genre of the documentary as practiced by the soothsayer Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), in the poetry of the images of Heddy Honigmann (Crazy), through the artistry of Errol Morris (Fog of War) and in the passion of Spike Lee (When the Levees Broke). Parker’s FTA has been restored from an archival print and is out on DVD with a bonus feature, a 20-minute interview with Jane Fonda revealing a ton of fascinating back story. Fonda—finding time between rehearsals for a new play 33 Variations—showed up to introduce both screenings of FTA and continues to set the record straight. “Go Jane!”
FTA (1972) directed by Francine Parker with Michael Alaimo, Len Chandler, Pamela Donegan, Steve Jaffe , Rita Martinson, Paul Mooney, Holly Near, Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda. DVD 97 min. with bonus feature: interview with Jane Fonda.
Theater of War (2008) directed by John W. Walter with George C. Wolfe, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner, Austin Pendleton, Jay Cantor, Meryl Streep and others.
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.
Reprise of Winter Soldier anti-war conference held near D.C.
Distributed by the Associated Press, March 15 2008
Veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are meeting this weekend at an anti-war conference modeled after a well-known 1971 gathering at which Vietnam veterans spoke out against that conflict.
The four-day event called "Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations," is expected to draw more than 200 veterans of the two conflicts through Sunday. It was timed for the eve of the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq war next week.
On Friday, former soldiers and Marines addressed an audience of several hundred in Silver Spring. They spoke of having to make snap decisions about whether to fire on civilians, of soldiers firing indiscriminately on Iraqi vehicles, and of an apartment building filled with Iraqi families attacked by an American gunship.
Former Marine Jon Turner began his presentation by ripping his service medals off his shirt and tossing them into the first row. He then narrated a series of graphic photographs that brought gasps from the audience. In a matter-of-fact voice, he described episodes in which he and fellow Marines shot people out of fear or retribution.
"I'm sorry for the hate and destruction I've inflicted upon innocent people," Turner said. "Until people hear about what is happening in this war, it will continue."
The event drew dozens of counter-protesters who demonstrated outside.
"We want absolute specifics," said Harry Riley, a retired Army colonel who leads Eagles Up. "This is too important to our nation. The credibility of our nation and the credibility of our soldiers are involved."
The 1971 Winter Soldier in Detroit was similarly controversial.
John Kerry, then a young veteran, was a participant, and criticism for what he said at the time resurfaced during the Massachusetts senator's 2004 presidential bid.
"Kerry lied while good men died, and you guys are betraying good men," yelled a protester Saturday who managed to slip into the conference, which was limited to participants and the media.
The protester was roughly hustled from the room by members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who are providing security for the event.
A Defense Department spokesman said he had not seen the allegations raised Friday, but added that such incidents are not representative of U.S. conduct.
"When isolated allegations of misconduct have been reported, commanders have conducted comprehensive investigations to determine the facts and held individuals accountable when appropriate," Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros said.
Posted, by Mark Benjamin, to Salon Magazine, March 13 2008
"It has often been remarked but seldom remembered that war itself is a crime. Yet a war crime is more and other than war ... It is an act beyond the pale of acceptable actions even in war. Deliberate killing or torturing of prisoners of war is a war crime. Deliberate destruction without military purpose of civilian communities is a war crime." -- Former infantry platoon leader William Crandell opening the "Winter Soldier Investigation" in Detroit, Jan. 31, 1971
More than 100 veterans gathered in a Detroit hotel in early 1971 to talk about things they had seen and done in the Vietnam War. Called the Winter Soldier Investigation, the group spoke about a horrifying array of allegations: convoys driving over civilians; burning of villages; bodies thrown out of helicopters; torture, mutilation and infamous "free-fire zones," where anyone not wearing a U.S. uniform could be killed.
Thirty-seven years later, more than 100 veterans will gather over the next several days for "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan." The event is designed to be another purging of the horrors of war, and another effort to put American military policy on trial in the public eye. The gathering this time, at the National Labor College outside Washington, D.C., is sponsored by the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. "Soldiers will certainly be testifying about their experience and observation of actions which are absolutely in violation of international law," says IVAW spokesperson Perry O"Brien, who served as an Army medic in Afghanistan in 2003.
In interviews with Salon, several veterans from the group described incidents in Iraq that they believed constituted wrongdoing by the U.S. military, including disproportionate use of air power resulting in civilian deaths. The soldiers were unable to provide Salon with any conclusive evidence of war crimes. But as the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, the allegations they and other Winter Soldier members will publicize in Washington this week add to a long-term set of questions about the damage and destruction wrought by U.S. military operations over years of war.
The first Winter Soldier Investigation, sponsored in 1971 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, ultimately helped fuel the antiwar movement in the United States. And the kinds of atrocities in Vietnam they alleged have been well documented since then. The first event also resulted in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asking John Kerry, the young veteran who would go on to be a U.S. senator, to testify three months later, when he famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
In fact, the first Winter Soldier investigation was largely ignored by the media, initially. "I don't think we had nearly the effect we had hoped for," the Vietnam veteran Crandell told me in a telephone interview. "The reporters on the scene were very impressed," he said. "But the networks sat on it." Perhaps that was because it was held in the Motor City (a bad decision then, organizers admit). Perhaps it was because the country wasn't yet ready to hear how a seemingly invisible enemy in Southeast Asia had driven otherwise honorable American soldiers to commit unthinkable atrocities, including acts that were officially or unofficially condoned by military policy.
It is unclear whether Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan will gain wider attention from the media and the public, but its organizers say that today's technology could make a difference. "The modern soldier carries a digital camera almost as a sidearm," explained O'Brien. The group says that potentially explosive photos and video from Iraq displayed at this Winter Soldier investigation will help "expose the human consequences of failed policy" in the war zones. The searing images from Abu Ghraib, of course, came to light because soldiers working inside the prison made use of their personal digital cameras.
The veterans of Winter Soldier face the challenge of condemning U.S. military policy without the event being interpreted as -- or twisted into -- an unpatriotic attack on their fellow troops. "That is the tightrope they have to walk," explained Rick Weidman, a Vietnam veteran and director of government relations at Vietnam Veterans of America. "Don't blame the troops who are thrust into the middle of a goddamn civil war where you can't tell who the enemy is." He added: "You don't blame the troops for being put in an impossible situation. Some of this stuff is part of war. You could not retake Fallujah without what many people consider atrocities."
Vietnam veterans faced a similarly difficult balancing act 37 years ago. When Crandell opened the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971, he tried to make it clear that the event was not intended to put American troops on trial. "There will be no phony indictments; there will be no verdict against Uncle Sam," Crandell said back then. The testimony, he argued, was supposed to expose "acts which are the inexorable result of national policy."
But it is unclear if Americans who are politically conservative will pick up on that distinction, particularly at a time when just about any critique of the war is quickly spun by both right and left. "I think they have to be as clear as they can," Crandell continued. "I still have conversations with Vietnam vets 40 years later who feel defamed by what we did. I feel sorry about that." But Crandell said this new Winter Soldier event should still go forward, "to whatever extent it helps with resolving the war or the maverick policies that need to be curtailed."
Some Iraq veterans agree that the pro-war crowd will work to create the impression that the event is an unpatriotic smear against the troops. "It troubles me a little bit," Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America said about the coming event. "I hope that they are thinking this out, because there are plenty of people who are going to want to have their ass."
Rush Limbaugh is likely to be one who goes after them. The widely heard right-wing radio host last fall claimed that some veterans who oppose the war are, in fact, "phony soldiers."
Limbaugh has said he was referring to the case of Jesse MacBeth. Several years ago MacBeth, then an IVAW member, alleged he committed war crimes in Iraq as a soldier in the Army. In May 2006, the Army reported that MacBeth, in fact, had never served in Iraq at all.
IVAW counters that the MacBeth incident occurred before the organization put in place a requirement that members provide proof of service. For Winter Soldier, the group has also assembled a verification team of combat veterans to interview soldiers testifying, examine discharge paperwork and review corroborating evidence including additional witnesses, video and photos.
But even with all that evidence, people sitting in the audience at National Labor College may have trouble evaluating some of the testimony they hear. Wartime accounts are notoriously difficult to untangle and verify, even when coming from multiple primary sources who appear to be telling the truth to the best of their knowledge. Soldiers are limited to a grunt's-eye-view of the world. They will tell it like they saw it, but admit that they don't have all the answers about what may have happened in a given incident.
One example that will likely be discussed at the Winter Soldier meeting in Washington involves a powerful air attack carried out on apartment buildings in Baghdad in 2003. Soldiers who witnessed the attack told Salon that they believe innocent civilians were killed. But they witnessed it at night, from a distance, and never saw direct evidence of dead civilians.
"I'm pretty sure we saw some pretty fucked-up shit," said Clifton Hicks, who was a private in the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and will be testifying at the Winter Soldier event. Hicks and two other soldiers from the division's 1st Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment described a Nov. 13, 2003, nighttime airstrike on five apartment buildings a few hundred yards outside the perimeter of Camp Slayer, their sprawling base located just south of the Baghdad airport.
In separate interviews with Salon, all three soldiers described the buildings as shoddily constructed structures, maybe four stories high. The Iraqis living there would stand and stare when the soldiers rode by on vehicle patrols. Laundry hung out to dry on the balconies. But the structures provided one of the few clear lines of sight into the soldiers' compound, and occasionally somebody would take a random pot shot at the base from one of the apartment buildings. After one such attack involving a lieutenant colonel on the base in fall 2003, the military launched an airstrike using an AC-130, a four-propeller gunship armed with powerful cannons.
The strike appears to have occurred as part of Operation Iron Hammer, an early effort to snuff out a growing insurgency through massive use of air power in Baghdad. The officer allegedly involved in calling in the airstrike, Lt. Col. Chuck Williams, was quoted on Nov. 13, 2003, by CBS News discussing Operation Iron Hammer. "If you are trying to send a message by firing and harboring yourself inside of an area like this, we want to send the message right back that you can be reached," he told CBS. "We will find you and surgically remove you." A Pentagon news article dated the next day noted only that an AC-130 "destroyed a building that had sheltered terrorists firing on U.S. forces for several days."
Steven Casey, who back then was a scout in the same Army unit, provided Salon with videotape of the strike taken from the roof of a building at Camp Slayer, date-stamped Nov. 13, 2003. While the airstrike can clearly be heard on the tape, darkness and distance render it mostly useless for verification purposes. (Word had quickly spread through Camp Slayer that the strike was coming and soldiers had gathered on a rooftop to watch.)
The Army would not comment on the airstrike. Williams, the lieutenant colonel allegedly involved in calling in the airstrike, refused a request for an interview.
But it is not just the darkness on the videotape that makes the story hard to gauge. News clips from that time period claim that the military was evacuating civilians prior to Operation Iron Hammer airstrikes, in an effort to destroy empty buildings that had been used to launch attacks on U.S. forces. Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who commanded the 1st Armored Division at the time, claimed in a Nov. 20, 2003, press conference that "we have had no civilian casualties resulting from Iron Hammer."
Salon also contacted a human rights group, which said they had staff in Iraq at that time, but they could verify no details about the airstrike or its outcome. And the three soldiers interviewed admit that while they saw the heavily damaged buildings after the strike, nobody got out of their vehicles to see if there were, in fact, dead civilians in the rubble.
Regardless of what happened that night, dozens if not hundreds of interviews with returning veterans have shown that throughout the war, the military regularly responded to real or perceived threats with overwhelming firepower. Some of those incidents clearly resulted in unwarranted civilian deaths. Other attacks may have inadvertently resulted in an unknown but potentially significant number of civilian casualties. (It should also be said that many officers and soldiers have taken great pains to protect civilians throughout the war.)
The U.S. military's overall approach with using overwhelming force supposedly changed under the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Gen. David Petraeus starting in early 2007. Civilians were now seen as the "center of gravity" in the war effort, and it was deemed that great lengths should be taken to protect them and win over their support. High-level military officials say Petraeus has been successful in changing the way the military conducts itself in this regard; the Air Force has implemented rigorous protocols to reduce collateral damage from airstrikes.
Still, the vast majority of the American public does not have a clear picture of what has gone on for years in Iraq and Afghanistan due to U.S. military operations. In the coming days, the new generation of veterans gathering for the Winter Soldier event hope to make it more clear.