Get ready for the horrible, honest reality of the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan like you haven't heard it before. For four days, from March 13 through March 16, hundreds of U.S. veterans of the two wars will descend on Washington and testify in the "Winter Soldier" hearings about what they really did while they were serving their country in Iraq. And their experiences aren't pretty.
The event is inspired by the Winter Solider tribunal held in 1971 by Vietnam War vets, including John Kerry. The name comes from a quote from Thomas Paine, the revolutionary who rallied George Washington's troops at Valley Forge, saying: "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."
Paine was trying to keep Washington's army from deserting in the face of a bitter winter and mounting defeats at the hands of the British. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War say the same type of courage is needed to confront the evils unleashed by the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"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, argued former U.S. Army Sergeant 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 explained 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," 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 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."
Not Just Numbers
Aaron Hughes, a former member of the Illinois National Guard who spent a year running convoys in Iraq, is getting involved too. "We're trying to create a space for veterans to speak out and change the rhetoric around the war," he said. "There are human beings on both sides. There are not just numbers. That's what missing in our culture."
Hughes grew up in a basement apartment in Chicago and joined the National Guard when he saw how successfully it provided relief during heavy flooding on the Mississippi River.
But after being sent to Iraq, he came to see the military in a different way. An art student at the University of Illinois at the time he was called up, Hughes went back over the photos he took while deployed in Iraq and altered them in an "attempt to interpret the posture assumed as a soldier/tourist in the surreal space of Iraq." Hughes' work was been shown at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.
"I think it's wrong, looking back at it," he said. "How can you not perceive it as a step away from your humanity? They automatically start isolating you. They tell you your girlfriend or your husband is not going to be there. They tell you not to trust anyone but the military and they really start fostering that as your sole relationship in life."
Equally Criminal Wars
The veterans also want to stress the similarities between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The exact same units that are getting the exact same training and the exact same orders are getting sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan," explained Perry O'Brien, a former U.S. Army Medic who became a conscientious objector after his tour in Afghanistan. "What we're seeing is a lot of similarities between practices in both countries and both are equally criminal."
O'Brien even witnessed the abuse of dead bodies during his tour. "When a patient would die, we would hear over the PA system an announcement through the clinic saying 'Who wants to learn how to do a chest tube?' or 'Who wants to know what a human heart looks like?,'" he said. "Rather than giving the proper treatment of the dead, the body would become a cadaver for medical practice with no consent from the victim."
First Winter Soldier
When the first Winter Soldier hearings were held 37 years ago in 1971, the United States had reached a point in the war that was very similar to what's going on today. Public opinion had moved decidedly against the war. Coalition partners like Australia and New Zealand were withdrawing their troops. The Pentagon Papers had just been released showing a long list of official deception from Washington. And yet, the war continued with President Richard Nixon pushing ahead with an expansion of U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, which included the invasion of Cambodia.
Vietnam Veterans Against the War were determined to play a role in changing that. They gathered in Detroit to explain what they had really done when they were deployed overseas serving their countries. They showed, through their first-person testimony that atrocities like the My Lai massacre were not isolated exceptions.
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, Kerry took his case to Congress and spoke before a jammed Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans packed the seats.
Then and Now: Kerry and Mejia
"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?"
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War intend to play a similarly historic role.
"We have given a blanket invitation to Congress," said Camilo Mejia, the Chair of the Board of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "We hope the Congress will give these hearings the same attention they did during the Vietnam era."
But action from politicians is only one possible outcome. Mejia says IVAW also hopes Winter Soldier will increase the size and strength of GI Resistance against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This event is going to empower soldiers to follow their conscience whatever that means for them," said Mejia, who deserted the military after five months in Iraq. "The kinds of things we're talking about are non-partisan. They're non-political. They have to do with human being trapped in this atrocity producing situation."
Many observers believe the Army is already close to its breaking point. Last week, top Army officials told the Senate Armed Services Committee that it's is under serious strain and must reduce the length of combat tours as soon as possible. Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of Staff said, "The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance."
Casey told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that cutting the time soldiers spend in combat is an integral part of reducing the stress on the force. Last year, Senate Republicans and President George W. Bush sabotaged Democratic attempts to ensure troops as much rest time at home as they spent on their most recent tour overseas. Cycling troops through three or four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the only way Bush has been able to maintain a force of over 140,000 US soldiers in Iraq.
For most Americans, "this war has been statistics, it's been rhetoric," said Hughes, the former member of the Illinois National Guard. "But for the American soldiers who've served there it is personal, and for the Iraqi people who live there, it's personal. That's why our testimony is important."
Streaming Video and Audio
Video and photographic evidence will also be presented, and the Winter Soldier testimony and panels will be broadcast live on nationally Pacifica Radio and satellite television station Free Speech TV Channel 9415. Streaming video on ivaw.org, as well as audio at KPFA.org and warcomeshome.org will enable people to tune in across the world.
The War Comes Home site, which I edit and is associated with the San Francisco Pacifica radio station KPFA, will also feature bios, photos, and videos of the speakers. Online audio clips of the testimonials will be posted as the hearing progresses.
Space at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Washington, DC suburb where the hearings will occur, is limited. Antiwar activists are not being encouraged to show up, but are instead being asked to have listening or viewing parties in their own communities.
Independent journalist Aaron Glantz, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, has reported extensively from Iraq throughout the U.S. occupation. He is author of How America Lost Iraq (Penguin). He will co-host the Pacifica radio broadcast of the Winter Soldier hearings, along with veteran Aimee Allison and both of them will blog from the hearing at warcomeshome.org, where listeners will be able to leave their comments.
© 2008 Foreign Policy In Focus