SILVER SPRING, Maryland - Hundreds of veterans who gathered outside Washington last weekend to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan are returning to their communities across the country with the goal of stoking resistance to the Iraq war from inside the U.S. military.
The so-called Winter Soldier gathering organised by Iraq Veterans Against the War was designed to demonstrate that well-publicised 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 organisers said, of "an increasingly bloody occupation".
"We have the power to bring the troops home, when they throw down their weapons and refuse to fight," said Phil Aliff, a recently discharged combat veteran, who helped start the first active duty chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War at Fort Drum in upstate New York.
Aliff founded that chapter after serving a year in Iraq from August 2005 to July 2006, a tour that included stints in Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, some of the most dangerous parts of Iraq for a U.S. soldier. He participated in roughly 300 patrols and was hit by so many roadside bombs that the entire unit became demoralised and started to seek out ways to avoid combat.
In April 2007, after returning home, Aliff began talking to other soldiers at Fort Drum who shared his opposition to the war. He refused a second deployment to Iraq, noting he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder from his first tour, and started organising with other soldiers on the base.
"Instead of relying on media exposure as a quick fix to gaining members, we began weekly face to face meetings as a way to create transparency from the chain of command," he said. "We had two main tasks: to educate our fellow soldiers and win victories for them. And we did win victories."
For example, Aliff noted, one of their members, Specialist Eugene Cherry, was discharged without a court martial even though he had gone Absent Without Leave (AWOL) for 16 months after being refused treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other veterans at Winter Soldier noted that soldiers seeking to oppose the war from inside the ranks need not break Pentagon regulations to do so.
Garret Rappenhangen, a former U.S. Army scout sniper, who served in Baquba near the Iranian border from 2004 to 2005, helped found a military blog called Fight to Survive, which he and other like-minded soldiers posted to throughout their deployments.
"When you're in the military, you are a citizen soldier," Rappenhagen said. "You still retain your rights as a citizen and you're able to use those rights."
To critics of his activities, Rappenhagen said: "It'll be a shame if the actual use of your first amendment right [to freedom of speech] becomes unpatriotic."
These increasing calls for GI resistance came amid an almost complete media blackout from the large U.S. news organisations.
Though the gathering was timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and was held in Silver Spring, Maryland less than 10 miles from the White House, the personal testimonies of hundreds of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans garnered only a small article in the metro section of the Washington Post. The New York Times¸ CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS ignored it completely.
Five years into the war, the country appears to be back where it started in terms of media coverage. A study by the Pew Research Centre last week revealed only 28 percent of respondents correctly said about 4,000 U.S. citizens have died in the war. Most thought the number was closer to 2,000 or 3,000.
According to the same survey, overall media coverage of the war dropped from an average of 15 percent of stories in July 2007 to just 3 percent in February 2008.
But the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who spoke at Winter Soldier could take heart in another survey released Wednesday by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News which found 53 percent of respondents think the U.S. goal of achieving victory in Iraq is not possible.
Many members of Iraq Veterans Against the War see a parallel between that kind of polling and the history of GI resistance during the Vietnam war. They note that when Vietnam veterans held a similar forum on war crimes in 1971 it was also roundly ignored by the mainstream press. But that did not cause the story to go away, because word got out through military and veteran circles that resistance within the ranks was building -- a development most members of Iraq Veterans Against the War see as even more important than mainstream media coverage and lobbying on Capital Hill.
"We may be smaller in number than the Vietnam Veterans Against the War were," Rappenhagen said, "but when they held their Winter Soldier event in 1971 it was three years after the Tet Offensive. Hopefully, by speaking here today we can end this war before there is a Tet Offensive in Iraq."
IPS correspondent Aaron Glantz co-anchored Pacifica Radio's live coverage of Winter Soldier 2008. You can find audio and images from the event online at the website www.warcomeshome.org.
Copyright © 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service.