SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND - Dozens of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans publicly testified this weekend about crimes they committed during the course of battle -- many of which were prompted by the orders or policies laid down by superior officers.Some international law experts have said the soldiers' statements show the need for investigations into potential violations of international law by high-ranking officials in the Bush administration and the Pentagon.
The weekend gathering was designed to demonstrate that well-publicized incidents of U.S. brutality, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of Haditha, are not isolated incidents perpetrated by "a few bad apples," as many politicians and military leaders have claimed. They are part of a pattern, the organizers said, of "an increasingly bloody occupation."
The so-called "Winter Soldier" event brought together more than 300 war veterans to discuss soldiers' actions and the impact of the ongoing wars. The event was organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War and was named after a quote from 1776 by the American revolutionary Thomas Paine.
Among those testifying at the hearing was Cpl. Jason Washburn, a former Marine who served three tours in Iraq. Washburn served in some of the most dangerous parts of the country, including Najaf and Iraq's Western Anbar Province. A squad in his unit was responsible for the massacre of 26 civilians in Haditha in November 2005.
Washburn told the gathering his commanders encouraged lawless behavior.
"We were encouraged to bring 'drop weapons' or shovels, in case we accidentally shot a civilian, we could drop the weapon on the body and pretend they were an insurgent," he said.
"By the third tour, if they were carrying a shovel or bag, we could shoot them. So we carried these tools and weapons in our vehicles, so we could toss them on civilians when we shot them. This was commonly encouraged."
Another former Marine, John Michael Turner, tore off the medals he earned during two tours in Iraq and threw them on the ground.
"Apr. 18, 2006 was the date of my first confirmed kill," he told the crowd other veterans. "He was innocent, I called him the fat man. He was walking back to his house and I killed him in front of his father and friend. My first shot made him scream and look into my eyes, so I looked at my friend and said, 'Well, I can't let that happen,' and shot him again. After my first kill I was congratulated."
Marc Garlasco, a senior military analyst at the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch, told OneWorld "we shouldn't scapegoat soldiers for any orders they have been given."
"The bottom line should be where up the chain of command does this [investigation] need to go," he said. "When we're looking at torture at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay we need to ask where were the officers and what were they doing?"
In 2006, Garlasco co-authored a report for Human Rights Watch titled "No Blood, No Foul," which featured numerous anonymous U.S. soldiers telling stories of torturing detainees.
"Detainee abuse was an established and apparently authorized part of the detention and interrogation processes in Iraq for much of 2003-2005," the report reads. "The accounts also suggest that U.S. military personnel who felt the practices were wrong and illegal have faced significant obstacles at every turn when they attempted to report or expose the abuses."
Last week, U.S. President George W. Bush vetoed legislation that would have specifically banned certain types of interrogation techniques that are internationally recognized as torture.
Bush announced the veto during his weekly radio address in which he defended widely condemned practices including waterboarding, the simulated drowning technique invented by Spanish inquisitors and adopted by such regimes as the Khmer Rouge. Bush claimed that techniques like this had alone prevented a repeat of attacks similar to those carried out on Sep. 11, 2001.
"The fact that we have not been attacked over the past six and a half years is not a matter of chance," Bush warned. "This is no time for Congress to abandon practices that have a proven track record of keeping America safe."
But veterans who testified at the Winter Soldier gathering said detainee abuse is just one of many types of brutality that has become a systematic part of the occupation.
"The problem that we face in Iraq is that policy makers in leadership have set a precedent of lawlessness where we don't abide by the rule of law, we don't respect international treaties," argued U.S. Army Sgt. Logan Laituri, who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before being discharged as a conscientious objector. "So when that atmosphere exists, it lends itself to criminal activity."
Laituri told OneWorld that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt in the rules of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines. For example, when he was stationed in Samarra, 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," Laituri said. "But I have a problem with that. You can't tell a family to leave everything they know so you can bomb the [expletive] 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."
International law expert Benjamin Ferencz, who served as chief prosecutor of Nazi War Crimes at Nuremberg after World War II, said none of the veterans who testify at Winter Soldier should be prosecuted for war crimes.
Instead, he said, President Bush should be sent to the dock for starting an "aggressive" war.
"Nuremberg declared that aggressive war is the supreme international crime," the 88-year-old Ferencz told OneWorld. He said the United Nations charter, which was written after the carnage of World War II, contains a provision that no nation can use armed force without the permission of the UN Security Council.
"Every war will lead to attacks on civilians," he said. "Crimes against humanity, destruction beyond the needs of military necessity, rape of civilians, plunder -- that always happens in wartime. So my answer personally, after working for 60 years on this problem and [as someone] who hates to see all these young people get killed no matter what their nationality, is that you've got to stop using warfare as a means of settling your disputes."
Ferencz believes the most important development toward that end would be the effective implementation of the International Criminal Court, which is located in the Hague, Netherlands.
© 2008 One World