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 Dahr Jamail, was posted to zNet, July 16, 2009.
On May 1st at Fort Hood in central Texas, Specialist Victor Agosto wrote on a counseling statement, which is actually a punitive U.S. Army memo:
"There is no way I will deploy to Afghanistan. The occupation is immoral and unjust. It does not make the American people any safer. It has the opposite effect."
Ten days later, he refused to obey a direct order from his company commander to prepare to deploy and was issued a second counseling statement. On that one he wrote, "I will not obey any orders I deem to be immoral or illegal." Shortly thereafter, he told a reporter, "I'm not willing to participate in this occupation, knowing it is completely wrong. It's a matter of what I'm willing to live with."
Agosto had already served in Iraq for 13 months with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion. Currently on active duty at Fort Hood, he admits, "It was in Iraq that I turned against the occupations. I started to feel very guilty. I watched contractors making obscene amounts of money. I found no evidence that the occupation was in any way helping the people of Iraq. I know I contributed to death and human suffering. It's hard to quantify how much I caused, but I know I contributed to it."
Even though he was approaching the end of his military service, Agosto was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan under the stop-loss program that the Department of Defense uses to retain soldiers beyond the term of their contracts. At least 185,000 troops have been stop-lossed since September 11, 2001.
Agosto betrays no ambivalence about his willingness to face the consequences of his actions:
"Yes, I'm fully prepared for this. I have concluded that the wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] are not going to be ended by politicians or people at the top. They're not responsive to people, they're responsive to corporate America. The only way to make them responsive to the needs of the people is for soldiers to not fight their wars. If soldiers won't fight their wars, the wars won't happen. I hope I'm setting an example for other soldiers."
Today, Agosto's remains a relatively isolated act in an all-volunteer military built to avoid the dissent that, in the Vietnam era, came to be associated with an army of draftees. However, it's an example that may, soon enough, have far greater meaning for an increasingly overstretched military plunging into an expanding Afghan War seemingly without end, even as its war in Iraq continues. Avoiding Battle
Writing on his blog from Baquba, Iraq, in September 2004, Specialist Jeff Englehart commented: "Three soldiers in our unit have been hurt in the last four days and the true amount of army-wide casualties leaving Iraq are unknown. The figures are much higher than what is reported. We get awards and medals that are supposed to make us feel proud about our wicked assignment..."
Over the years, in response to such feelings, some American soldiers have come up with ingenious ways to express defiance or dissent on our distant battlegrounds. These have been little noted in the mainstream media, and when they do surface, officials in the Pentagon or in Washington just brush them aside as "bad apple" incidents (the same explanation they tend to use when a war crime is exposed).
But in the stories of men and women who served in the occupation of Iraq, they often play a different role. In October 2007, for instance, I interviewed Corporal Phil Aliff, an Iraq War veteran, then based at Fort Drum in upstate New York. He recalled:
"During my stints in Iraq between August 2005 and July 2006, we probably ran 300 patrols. Most of the men in my platoon were just in from combat tours in Afghanistan and morale was incredibly low. Recurring hits by roadside bombs had demoralized us and we realized the only way we could avoid being blown up was to stop driving around all the time. So every other day we would find an open field and park, and call our base every hour to tell them we were searching for weapon caches in the fields and everything was going fine. All our enlisted people had grown disenchanted with the chain of command."
Aliff referred to this tactic as engaging in "search and avoid" missions, a sardonic expression recycled from the Vietnam War when soldiers were sent out on official "search and destroy" missions.
Sergeant Eli Wright, who served as a medic with the 1st Infantry Division in Ramadi from September 2003 through September 2004, had a similar story to tell me. "Oh yeah, we did search and avoid missions all the time. It was common for us to go set camp atop a bridge and use it as an over-watch position. We would use our binoculars to observe rather than sweep, but call in radio checks every hour to report on our sweeps."
According to Private First Class Clifton Hicks, who served in Iraq with the First Cavalry from October 2003, only six months after Baghdad was occupied by American troops, until July 2004, search and avoid missions began early and always had the backing of a senior non-commissioned officer or a staff sergeant. "Our platoon sergeant was with us and he knew our patrols were bullshit, just riding around to get blown up," he explained. "We were at Camp Victory at Baghdad International Airport. A lot of the time we'd leave the main gate and come right back in another gate to the base where there's a big PX with a nice mess hall and a Burger King. We'd leave one guy at the Humvee to call in every hour, while the others stayed at the PX. We were just sick and tired of going out on these stupid patrols."
These understated acts of refusal were often survival strategies as well as gestures of dissent, as the troops were invariably undertrained and ill-equipped for the job of putting down an insurgency. Specialist Nathan Lewis, who was deployed to Iraq with the 214th Artillery Brigade from March 2002 through June 2003, experienced this firsthand. "We never received any training for much of what we were expected to do," he said when telling me of certain munitions catching fire while he and other soldiers were loading them onto trucks, "We were never trained on how to handle [them] the right way."
Sergeant Geoff Millard of the New York Army National Guard served at a Rear Operations Center with the 42nd Infantry Division from October 2004 through October 2005. Part of his duty entailed reporting "significant actions," or SIGACTS -- that is, attacks on U.S. forces. In an interview in 2007 he told me, "When I was there at least five companies never reported SIGACTS. I think 'search and avoids' have been going on for a long time. One of my buddies in Baghdad emails that nearly each day they pull into a parking lot, drink soda, and shoot at the cans." Millard told me of soldiers he still knows in Iraq who were still performing "search and avoid" missions in December 2008. Several other friends deploying or redeploying to Iraq soon assured him that they, too, planned to operate in search and avoid mode.
Corporal Bryan Casler was first deployed to Iraq with the Marines in 2003, at the time of the invasion. Posted to Afghanistan in 2004, he returned to Iraq for another tour of duty in 2005. He tells of other low-level versions of the tactic of avoidance: "There were times we would go to fix a radio that had been down for hours. It was purposeful so we did not have to deal with the bullshit from higher [ups]. In reality, we would go so we could just chill out, let the rest of the squad catch up on some rest as one stood guard. It's mutual and people start covering for each other. Everyone knows what the hell's going on."
Staff Sergeant Ronn Cantu, an infantryman who was deployed to Iraq from March 2004 to February 2005, and again from December 2006 to January 2008, said of some of the patrols he observed while there: "[They] wouldn't go up and down the streets like they were supposed to. They would just go to a friendly compound with the Iraqi police or the Kurdish Peshmerga [militia] and stay at their compound and drink tea until it was time to go back to the base."
As a Stryker armored combat vehicle commander in Iraq from September 2004 to September 2005, Sergeant Seth Manzel had figured out a way to fabricate on screen the movement of their patrol and so could run computerized versions of a search and avoid mission. As he explained: "Sometimes if they called us up to go and do something, we would swiftly send computer reports that we were headed in that direction. On the map we would manually place our icon to the target location and then move it back and forth to make it appear as though we were actually on the ground and patrolling. This was not an isolated case. Everyone did it. Everyone would go and hide somewhere from time to time."
Former Sergeant Josh Simpson, who served as a counter-intelligence agent in Iraq from October 2004 to October 2005, said he witnessed instances of faked movement. "I knew soldiers who learned to simulate vehicular movement on the computer screen, to create the impression of being on patrol," said Simpson. "There's no doubt that people did it." Saying "No" One at a Time "There was nothing to be done," Corporal Casler says of his time in Iraq, "no progress to be made there. Dissent starts as simple as saying this is bullshit. Why am I risking my life?"
Sometimes such feelings have permeated entire units and soldiers in them have refused to follow orders en masse. One of the more dramatic of these incidents occurred in July 2007. The 2nd Platoon of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, in Baghdad had lost many men in its 11 months of deployment. After a roadside bomb killed five more, its members held a meeting and agreed that it was no longer possible for them to function professionally. Concerned that their anger might actually touch off a massacre of Iraqi civilians, they staged a quiet revolt against their commanders instead.
Kelly Kennedy, a reporter with the Military Times embedded with Charlie Company prior to the revolt, described the shape the platoon members were in by that time: "[T]hey went right to mental health and they got sleeping medications, and they basically couldn't sleep and reacted poorly. And then, they were supposed to go out on patrol again that day. And they, as a platoon, the whole platoon -- it was about 40 people -- said, 'We're not going to do it. We can't. We're not mentally there right now.'"
In response, the military broke up the platoon. Each individual involved was also "flagged" so he would not get a promotion or receive any award due.
To this day, troops in Iraq continue to be plagued by equipment and manpower shortages, and work long hours in an extreme climate. In addition, their stress levels are regularly raised by news from home of veterans returning to separations and divorces, and of a Veteran's Administration often ill-equipped and unwilling to provide appropriate physical and psychological care to veterans.
While no broad poll of troops has been conducted recently, a Zogby poll in February 2006 found that 72% of soldiers in Iraq felt the occupation should be ended within a year. My interviews with those recently back from Iraq indicate that levels of despair and disappointment are once again on the rise among troops who are beginning to realize, months after the Obama administration was ushered in, that hopes of an early withdrawal have evaporated.
With the Afghan War heating up and the Iraq War still far from over, even if fighting there is at far lower levels than at its sectarian heights in 2006 and 2007, with stress and strain on the military still on the rise, dissent and resistance are unlikely to abate. In addition to small numbers of outright public refusals to deploy or redeploy, troops are going absent without official leave (AWOL) between deployments, and actual desertions may once again be on the rise. Certainly, there's one strong indication that despair is indeed growing: the unprecedented numbers of soldiers who are committing suicide; the Army's official suicide count rose to 133 in 2008, up from 115 in 2007, itself a record since the Pentagon began keeping suicide statistics in 1980. At least 82 confirmed or suspected suicides have been reported thus far in 2009, a pace that indicates another grim record will be set; and suicide, though seldom thought of in that context, is also a form of refusal, an extreme, individual way of saying no, or simply no more.
According to Sergeant Simpson, here's how a feeling of discontent and opposition creeps up on you while you're on duty: The part of the war you're involved in, interrogating Iraqis in his case, "doesn't make any sense. You realize that the whole system is flawed and if that is flawed, then obviously the whole war is flawed. If the basic premise of the war is flawed, definitely the intelligence system that is supposed to lead us to victory is flawed. What that implies is that victory is not even a possibility."
After finishing his tour in Iraq, Simpson joined the Reserves because he believed it would grant him a two-year deferment from being called up, but he was called up anyway. In his own case, he says, "I thought to myself, I can't do this anymore. First of all, it's bad for me mentally because I'm doing something I loathe. Second, I'm participating in an organization that I wish to resist in every way I can.
"So," he says, "I just stopped showing up for drill, didn't call my unit, didn't give them any reason for it. I changed my telephone number and they did not have my address." Eventually, he reached the end date of his contract and managed to graduate from Evergreen State University in Washington. "I don't know if technically I'm still in the reserves," he told me. "I don't know what my situation is, but I don't really care either. If I go to jail, I go to jail. I'd rather go to jail than go to Iraq." Unready and Unwilling Reserves Sergeant Travis Bishop, who served 14 months in Baghdad with the 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion -- the same battalion as Agosto, who served north of the Iraqi capital -- recently went AWOL from his station at Fort Hood, Texas, when his unit deployed to Afghanistan. He insists that it would be unethical for him to deploy to support an occupation he opposes on moral grounds.
On his blog, he puts his position this way: "I love my country, but I believe that this particular war is unjust, unconstitutional and a total abuse of our nation's power and influence. And so, in the next few days, I will be speaking with my lawyer, and taking actions that will more than likely result in my discharge from the military, and possible jail time... and I am prepared to live with that.... My father said, 'Do only what you can live with, because every morning you have to look at your face in the mirror when you shave. Ten years from now, you'll still be shaving the same face.' If I had deployed to Afghanistan, I don't think I would have been able to look into another mirror again."
I spoke with him briefly after he turned himself in at his base in early June. He said he'd chosen to follow Specialist Agosto's example of refusal, which had inspired him, and wanted to be present at his post to accept the consequences of his actions. He, too, hoped others might follow his lead. (He and Agosto, now in similar situations, have become friends.)
Agosto, whose hope has been to set an example of resistance for other soldiers, sees Bishop's refusal to deploy to Afghanistan as a personal success and says, "I already feel vindicated for what I'm doing by his actions. It's nice to see some immediate results."
His actions, he's convinced, have affected the way his fellow soldiers are now looking at the war in Afghanistan. "The topic has come up a lot in conversation, with soldiers on base now asking, 'What are we doing in Afghanistan? Why are we there?' People feel compelled to bring this up when I'm around. Even the ones that disagree with me say it's great what I'm doing, and that I'm doing what a lot of them don't have the courage to do. If anything, the people I work with have now been treating me better than ever."
On May 27th, rejecting an Article 15 -- a nonjudicial punishment imposed by a commanding officer who believes a member of his command has committed an offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- Agosto demanded to be court-martialed.
According to Agosto, the Army has now begun the court martial process, but has not yet set a trial date. Bishop, too, awaits a possible court martial.
On June 1st, a day when four U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, Agosto told me in a phone call from Fort Hood, "I haven't had to disobey any orders lately. A sergeant asked me if it'd be okay if I had to follow orders, and I said no, and they didn't force it."
Agosto and Bishop are hardly alone. In November 2007, the Pentagon revealed that between 2003 and 2007 there had been an 80% increase in overall desertion rates in the Army (desertion refers to soldiers who go AWOL and never intend to return to service), and Army AWOL rates from 2003 to 2006 were the highest since 1980. Between 2000 and 2006, more than 40,000 troops from all branches of the military deserted, more than half from the Army. Army desertion rates jumped by 42% from 2006 to 2007 alone.
U.S. Army Specialist André Shepherd joined the Army on January 27, 2004. He was trained in Apache helicopter repair and sent first to Germany, then was stationed in Iraq from November 2004 to February 2005, before being based again in Germany. Shepherd went AWOL in southern Germany in April 2007 and lived underground until applying for asylum there in November 2008, making him the first Iraq veteran to apply for refugee status in Europe.
He, too, has refused further military service because he feels morally opposed to the occupation of Iraq. While he awaits word from the German government and is still technically AWOL, Shepherd is being supported by Courage to Resist, a group based in Oakland, California, which actively assists soldiers who refuse to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan.
A counselor and administrative associate at that organization, Adam Szyper-Seibert, points out that "in recent months there has been a dramatic rise of nearly 200% in the number of soldiers that have contacted Courage to Resist." Szyper-Seibert suspects this may reflect the decision of the Obama administration to dramatically increase efforts, troop strength, and resources in Afghanistan. "We are actively supporting over 50 military resisters like Victor Agosto," Szyper-Seibert says. "They are all over the world, including André Shepherd in Germany and several people in Canada. We are getting five or six calls a week just about the IRR [Individual Ready Reserve] recall alone."
The IRR is composed of troops who have finished their active duty service but still have time remaining on their contracts. The typical military contract mandates four years of active duty followed by four years in the IRR, though variations on this pattern exist. Ready Reserve members live civilian lives and are not paid by the military, but they are required to show up for periodic musters. Many have moved on from military life and are enrolled in college, working civilian jobs, and building families.
At any point, however, a member of the Ready Reserve can be recalled to active duty. This policy has led to the involuntary reactivation of tens of thousands of troops to fight the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lieutenant General Jack C. Stultz, the Chief of the U.S. Army Reserve and Commanding General of the U.S. Army Reserve Command, told Congress on March 3rd that, since September 11, 2001, the Army has mobilized about 28,000 from the Reserves. There have been 3,724 Marines involuntarily recalled and mobilized during that same period, according to Major Steven O'Connor, a Marine Corps spokesman. (According to Major O'Connor, as of May 2009, the Marines are no longer recalling individuals from the IRR.)
Ironically, under a new commander-in-chief whom many voters believed to be anti-war, the Army is continuing its Individual Ready Reserve recalls. "The IRR recall has not seen any change since Obama became president," Sarah Lazare, the project coordinator for Courage to Resist, says. "It's difficult to predict what the Obama administration's policy will be in the future regarding the IRR, but definitely they haven't made any moves to stop this practice."
Needing boots on the ground, according to Lazare, the military continues to fall back on the Ready Reserve system to fill the gaps: "Since these are experienced troops, many of them have already served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan." Lazare adds, "When Obama announced his Afghanistan surge, we got a huge wave of calls from soldiers saying they didn't want to be reactivated and to please help them not go." The Future of Military Dissent
Right now, acts of dissent, refusal, and resistance in the all-volunteer military remain small-scale and scattered. Ranging from the extreme private act of suicide to avoidance of duty to actual refusal of duty, they continue to consist largely of individual acts. Present-day G.I. resistance to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan cannot begin to be compared with the extensive resistance movement that helped end the Vietnam War and brought an army of draftees to the point of near mutiny in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, the ongoing dissent that does exist in the U.S. military, however fragmented and overlooked at the moment, should not be discounted.
he Iraq War boils on at still dangerous levels of violence, while the war in Afghanistan (and across the border in Pakistan) only grows, as does the U.S. commitment to both. It's already clear that even an all-volunteer military isn't immune to dissent. If violence in either or both occupations escalates, if the Pentagon struggles to add more boots on the ground, if the stresses and strains on the military, involving endless redeployments to combat zones, increase rather than lessen, then the acts of Agosto, Bishop, and Shepherd may turn out to be pathbreaking ones in a world of dissent yet to be experienced and explored. Add in dissatisfaction and discontent at home if, in the coming years, American treasure continues to be poured into an Afghan quagmire, and real support for a G.I. resistance movement may surface. If so, then the early pioneers in methods of dissent within the military will have laid the groundwork for a movement.
"If we want soldiers to choose the right but difficult path, they must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will be supported by Americans." So said First Lieutenant Ehren Watada of the U.S. Army, the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse a combat deployment to Iraq. (He finally had the military charges against him dropped by the Justice Department.) The future of any such movement in the military is now unknowable, but keep your eyes open. History, even military history, holds its own surprises.
Former 10th corporal speaks out against war
Winter Soldier: Event in Maryland attracts dozens who participated in U.S. mission in Iraq
Posted, by Marc Heller, to the Watertown Daily Times, March 15, 2008
WASHINGTON — Philip Aliff isn't afraid to admit he was in the Army for the money. But even that — his salary, a $7,000 signing bonus and money for college — wasn't worth what he learned in Iraq.
The war, he discovered, was not for him. Neither was the Army.
Mr. Aliff, who finished his tour as a corporal with the 10th Mountain Division last week, was among the current and former soldiers speaking out against the mission in Iraq at Winter Solider, a four-day conference in Silver Spring, Md., sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War.
"My experiences in Iraq were what radicalized me," Mr. Aliff, 21, said in an interview Friday. "I really didn't understand the dynamic of what was happening in Iraq."
Mr. Aliff, who was with the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team from Fort Drum, said the situation was far more violent than the rebuilding effort commanders advertised or were prepared to handle.
The result, he said, were contradictory messages for Iraqi civilians as U.S. forces arrested scores of fighting-age men on flimsy suspicion of wrongdoing, only to let them go a few days later.
"We'd hand kids soccer balls," said Mr. Aliff, whose duties included daily combat patrols in Abu Ghraib City and, later, the more violent area near Fallujah in 2005. "They'd see us on the one hand giving them things, and on the other hand arresting their families."
The anti-war conference attracted dozens of soldiers and former soldiers, and possibly a comparable number of reporters and television crews.
In a twist, it also attracted pro-war protesters on the road outside the campus of the National Labor College, where the event was staged. Dozens of armed police officers and hired security guards, including a handful of Vietnam War veterans recruited by IVAW, kept pro-war demonstrators out.
The war supporters held banners proclaiming support for troops and accusing IVAW of undermining the U.S. mission to lay the groundwork for democracy and fight terrorists.
Journalists and other visitors admitted to the event were asked to sign a pledge not to disrupt the proceedings, and organizers warned that any outbursts could lead to expulsion, escorted by security.
On a table outside a conference room was a stack of yellow fliers advertising the New York State Marches for Peace walk May 8 to 17 that starts in Western New York and ends in Watertown.
Former and current soldiers spoke at a series of panel discussions about the killing of innocent civilians; waste, fraud and abuse by defense contractors; poor care for wounded veterans, and other issues. Many of the panelists were longtime soldiers who had re-enlisted more than once and said they did not regret their military service.
"I gained a huge experience," Mr. Aliff said, although he decided not to re-enlist. He said he was drawn to the Army by the signing bonus, college money and what seemed like a solid way to start out his adult life.
Other IVAW members spoke of longer commitments to the Army and said they would not dissuade potential recruits from joining as long as they "seek the truth" about the Army and its missions.
"My service in the military has been the greatest honor in my life," said Luis Montalvan, who left the Army as a captain with 17 years of experience and said he suffers post-traumatic stress syndrome. He wore his Army medals at a press conference Thursday, ahead of the event.
Mr. Aliff said his own unit's exposure to violence was probably a lingering result of the tough tactics used by the previous unit in the same area — the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team.
"From the moment we took over, it was like this," Mr. Aliff said. "People saw the same patches."
Although some IVAW members spoke of punishment for their anti-war views, Mr. Aliff said he received only a talking-to from his squad leader when he joined IVAW as an active-duty soldier.
When he spoke out, he said, "it was reinvigorating. I felt like I finally had a voice."
Mr. Aliff, who is single and from Atlanta, said he hopes to start art school next fall, but he is not sure where.
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.
This article, by Kirsten Scharnberg, was originally published in the Chicago Tribune, June 22, 2007
Veterans defend their right to question the war
Chicago:The young combat veteran stared at the letter in disbelief when it arrived in his mailbox a few months ago.
The Marine Corps was recommending him for "other than honorable discharge." The letter alleged he had violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice by wearing part of his uniform during an anti-war rally. Furthermore, the letter accused him of being "disloyal," a word hard to swallow for a man who had risked his life to serve his nation.
"All this because I have publicly opposed the war in Iraq since I came back from it," said former Marine Sgt. Liam Madden, 22.
Madden is not alone.
At least two other combat veterans who have returned from tours in Iraq and become well-known anti-war advocates have seen the military recommend them for less-than-honorable discharges. One of them is a young man 80 percent disabled from two tours who was threatened with losing his veteran's disability benefits if he continued to protest in uniform.
Critics - including some groups that have been the most supportive of the war - say the crackdown on these men constitutes a blatant attempt to quiet dissension in the ranks at the very time more and more members of the armed forces are publicly questioning the war they are being sent to fight.
"I may disagree with their message, but I will always defend their right to say it," said Gary Kurpius, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in a scathing statement he released this month under the headline, "VFW to Corps: Don't Stifle Freedom of Speech."
"Trying to punish fellow Americans for exercising the same democratic rights we're trying to instill in Iraq is not what we're about," Kurpis concluded.
The military has been quick to defend its decision to punish the men, stating that its policies regarding acceptable forms of protest are quite clear. Military guidelines state that troops may attend demonstrations only in the United States, only when they are off base and off duty, and, most critically, only when they are out of uniform.
"We don't restrict free speech," Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said. "It's the uniform that gets people in trouble. When you wear the uniform, you are representing the armed service behind that uniform, and it is against the military code of justice to protest in uniform."
Madden and the two other Marines were clearly documented wearing at least part of their uniforms at public protests. (Though all three had completed their active duty service, they remained reservists; the military argued that the Pentagon's conduct codes still applied to them, an assertion that seems likely to make its way to federal court.)
The military, with its hierarchal rank structure and absolute adherence to following orders, has never been an institution that takes kindly to debate from within. But today, as an increasingly unpopular war drags on and troops are being sent on second, third or fourth combat tours, the volume of criticism from veterans and even those on active duty is reaching a fevered pitch.
Perhaps the most telling part of such criticism is how open disgruntled troops are becoming despite the risk to their careers - signing their names to furious letters printed in military-owned newspapers; speaking on the record to reporters in Iraq about how badly the mission is going; writing members of Congress. And then there are the protests in uniform, a throwback to the Vietnam War era, when veterans such as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., denounced the war in weathered fatigues, throwing away their medals.
Many of the protests involving vets in uniform are all-out street theater, such as one in Washington last spring where protesters staged a mock patrol, manhandling people at simulated gunpoint in order to illustrate how they say Iraqis are treated by American troops. Just last week in Chicago, a similar protest took place. The intended subtext of the uniformed protests is apparent: that protesters have additional credibility because they are denouncing a war they have witnessed firsthand, that the very uniforms now being used in protest have walked the real-life battlefield.
"Guys like us - veterans who served but then came to believe the war is not only wrong but illegal - are not who the military wants speaking on a national stage," Madden said.
If Madden and the other Marines initially feared their high-profile discharge cases would serve to silence protest, the opposite seems to be slowly and quietly happening. The men's cases have spurred dissenting troops to find creative ways to voice their disapproval of the war while remaining well within military guidelines.
Take, for example, DOD Directive 7050.6. It expressly provides the right of service members to complain and to request redress of their grievances, including to members of Congress. In recent months some 2,000 active-duty and reserve troops have used the protection of that directive to sign "An Appeal for Redress," an initiative that sends troops' demand for an end of the war directly to Congress.
The wording of the appeal is intended to at once be patriotic and respectful while also unequivocally anti-war: It begins, "As a patriotic American proud to serve the nation in uniform." It ends: "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price. It is time for U.S. troops to come home."
Of the three Marines caught protesting in uniform, the case of former Cpl. Cloy Richards has garnered the least public attention-but the most within military circles. The 23-year-old from Missouri has been deemed 80 percent disabled from two tours in Iraq; he agreed this month before a military discharge review board that he would no longer protest in uniform in order to keep his honorable discharge and his veterans benefits that come to some $1,300 per month.
But that hasn't silenced Richards' protest. He now attends anti-war demonstrations in civilian clothes; his mother attends as well, wearing his old uniform for him.
Others are also creative. A young infantryman based at Ft. Drum, in Watertown, N.Y., home to the 10th Mountain Division, well knows the fine balancing act it is to be a uniformed member of the military and a committed anti-war activist. Phillip Aliff - he asked that his rank not be used, saying that would be against regulation - is the president of the Ft. Drum chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War.
Once a week, Aliff and the other IVAW members finish their duty day in uniform, change into civilian clothes and drive off base to meet at the Different Drummer, a cafe in downtown Watertown that is modeled on the anti-war coffeehouses of the Vietnam War era.
"I'm definitely walking the line," Aliff said, admitting that none of his direct commanders know of his anti-war activities. "But we who protest have a collective experience. We took part in it - we did the midnight raids and patrols, we caused the fear in the Iraqi people - so when even we say it's wrong, that carries some real credibility."
The Ft. Drum group has grown from two members when it was launched two months ago to 12 members today. Aliff said the members encourage each other to speak out despite the fear of reprisal that comes with doing so.
"None of us wants to get in trouble," Aliff said. "None of us wants to lose our jobs or our GI bills or our benefits. But we also feel we have to be willing to do what's right."
By meeting off base and out of uniform, the Iraq Veterans Against the War members stay just inside the line of legality for military code. They don't distribute literature on base or openly recruit new members at work.
"There are so many ways to stay within military law," Aliff said. "We know we have something to say so we are finding legal ways in which to say it."
A Zogby poll last year showed that war critics like Aliff may not be entirely on the fringes of the mainstream military. The poll of 944 U.S. military personnel in Iraq, conducted by Zogby International and Le Moyne College, found that 72 percent of those polled believed the U.S. should pull out within one year.
"The unrest has been churning below the surface for a while," said Madden, who still is waiting to see what will become of his less-tha