SAN FRANCISCO - U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are planning to descend on Washington from Mar. 13-16 to testify about war crimes they committed or personally witnessed in those countries."The war in Iraq is not covered to its potential because of how dangerous it is for reporters to cover it," said Liam Madden, a former Marine and member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War. "That's left a lot of misconceptions in the minds of the American public about what the true nature of military occupation looks like."
Iraq Veterans Against the War argues that well-publicised incidents of U.S. brutality like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of Haditha are not the isolated incidents perpetrated by "a few bad apples", as many politicians and military leaders have claimed. They are part of a pattern, the group says, of "an increasingly bloody occupation".
"The problem that we face in Iraq is that policymakers in leadership have set a precedent of lawlessness where we don't abide by the rule of law, we don't respect international treaties, so when that atmosphere exists it lends itself to criminal activity," argues former U.S. Army Sergeant Logan Laituri, who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before being discharged as a conscientious objector.
Laituri told IPS that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt in the rules of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines. When he was stationed in Samarra, for example, he said one of his fellow soldiers shot an unarmed man while he walked down the street.
"The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime as you might call it because the rules of engagement were very clear that no one was supposed to be walking down the street," he said. "But I have a problem with that. You can't tell a family to leave everything they know so you can bomb the shit out of their house or their city. So while he definitely has protection under the law, I don't think that legitimates that type of violence."
Iraq Veterans Against the War is calling the gathering "Winter Soldier," after a quote from the U.S. revolutionary Thomas Paine, who wrote in 1776: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
Organisers say video and photographic evidence will also be presented, and the testimony and panels will be broadcast live on Satellite TV and streaming video on ivaw.org.
Winter Soldier is modeled on a similar event held by Vietnam Veterans 37 years ago.
In 1971, over 100 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War gathered in Detroit to share their stories with fellow citizens. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre had ignited popular opposition to the war, but political and military leaders insisted that such crimes were isolated exceptions.
"Initially even the My Lai massacre was denied," notes Gerald Nicosia, whose book "Home to War" provides the most exhaustive history of the Vietnam veterans' movement.
"The U.S. military has traditionally denied these accusations based on the fact that 'this is a crazy soldier' or 'this is a malcontent' -- that you can't trust this person. And that is the reason that Vietnam Veterans Against the War did this unified presentation in Detriot in 1971."
"They brought together their bona fides and wore their medals and showed it was more than one or two or three malcontents. It was medal-winning, honored soldiers -- veterans in a group verifying what each other said to try to convince people that these charges cannot be denied. That people are doing these things as a matter of policy."
Nicosia says the 1971 Winter Soldier was roundly ignored by the mainstream media, but that it made an indelible imprint on those who were there.
Among those in attendance was 27-year-old Navy Lieutenant John Kerry, who had served on a Swift Boat in Vietnam. Three months after the hearings, Nicosia notes, Kerry took his case to Congress and spoke before a jammed Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans packed the seats.
"Many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia," Kerry told the committee, describing the events of the Winter Soldier gathering.
"It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit -- the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do."
In one of the most famous antiwar speeches of the era, Kerry concluded: "Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be -- and these are his words -- 'the first president to lose a war'. We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Nicosia says U.S. citizens and veterans find themselves in a similar situation today.
"The majority of the American people are very dissatisfied with the Iraq war now and would be happy to get out of it. But Americans are bred deep into their psyches to think of America as a good country and, I think, much harder than just the hurdle of getting troops out of Iraq is to get Americans to realise the terrible things we do in the name of the United States."
Aaron Glantz has reported extensively from Iraq and on the treatment of U.S. soldiers when they return home. He is editor of the website www.warcomeshome.org and will be co-hosting Pacifica Radio's live broadcast of the Winter Soldier hearings from Mar. 14-16.
© 2008 Inter Press Service