"I trained my weapon on him," Kristopher Goldsmith said. It was a little boy, 6 years old maybe, standing on a roof, menacing the soldiers with a stick. "I was thinking, I hate these Iraqis who throw rocks. I could kill this kid."
OK, America, let's look through the sights of Goldsmith's rifle for a long, long half-minute or so, draw a bead on the boy's heart, fondle the trigger - what to do? The soldier's decision is our decision.
This is occupied Iraq: the uncensored version, presented to us with relentless, at times unbearable honesty over four intense days last week in a historic gathering outside Washington, D.C., of returning vets, many of them broken and bitter about what they were forced to do, and what's been done to them, in sometimes two, three, four tours of duty in the biggest mistake in American history.
"These are the times that try men's souls," Thomas Paine wrote in 1776. "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."
The vets who told their stories last week, in an event at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., sponsored by Iraq Vets Against the War, are the "winter soldiers" of the war on terror, standing in service to their country by bearing the truth to it, just as Vietnam vets held the first Winter Soldier gathering 37 years ago in Detroit, in the wake of the My Lai massacre revelations, to let the American public know that that massacre wasn't an aberration but, rather, the logical result of our brutal, official policy there.
Once again, the crisis we are in is the result of an official policy that has dehumanized an entire country, an entire people. Once again, we are waging a war that can only be "won" when the American people themselves demand an end to it. The men and women who spoke last week brought not just the truth but an imperative as urgent as a live grenade:
Unconditional withdrawal of all troops and contractors from Iraq NOW; full benefits for all returning vets; reparations for the Iraqi people, so they can rebuild their country on their own terms.
I was able to attend two days of the Winter Soldier gathering. What I witnessed was a convergence of forces of historical significance, as angry, idealistic warriors, horrified by what they saw and were ordered to do during their time in the military, ashamed of what they sometimes did willingly within the context of racist arrogance that is the occupation of Iraq, reclaimed their humanity by declaring themselves peace warriors. I found myself at the heart of the American conscience: the place where war meets peace.
To experience the full impact of this event, you can listen to the testimony, among other places, at ivaw.org. In this column, I have space for the briefest of summaries, as GIs up to the rank of captain talked about the realities of the occupation of Iraq.
House raids: Over and over again, the speakers gave variations of these words of Jeffrey Smith: "We had everyone in house, including children, zip-tied on the front lawn (when we) realized we were in the wrong house. So we went to another house." Or these of Matthew Childers: "It seemed like we raided countless residences - 3 a.m., our semiautomatics out, screaming at them in a language they didn't understand. We rarely found anything."
Detainees: Common themes were the beatings, the sleep deprivation. Childers again: "They were beaten, humiliated, teased with food and water. These guys were in our custody for a week and I didn't see them eat the whole time. A Marine wiped his ass with an Iraqi's hat and tried to feed it to a blindfolded Iraqi - who was desperate for food and tried to eat it."
Racism and general disrespect: The Iraqis were "hadjis" - the equivalent, of course, of gooks or untermenschen. Speaker after speaker talked about receiving no cultural training in boot camp, but plenty of bayonet training. Matt Howard: "We treated Iraq like our own personal cesspool." Bryan Casler: "I saw the destruction of the Babylon ruins - people breaking off chunks to bring home; joyriding up walls. There was a complete lack of understanding."
With all this in mind - with an awareness that as many as a million Iraqis have died since the invasion, that 4 or 5 million have been displaced - let us peer once again at the little boy in the sights of Goldsmith's rifle.
"I was so close to killing a 6-year-old boy," he said. "I was put in that position by the occupation of Iraq." He could have taken the kid out, without consequence, but mastered the impulse, mastered his own drilled-in contempt for Iraqi life, and lowered his rifle.
He completed his tour, saw the horror, felt the death of his own youth, came home a severe alcoholic who got no help from the Army. Shortly before he was due to be discharged, his platoon was locked into an 18-month redeployment (part of the president's troop surge); instead of going back, he tried to kill himself with pills and vodka. He failed at that, was hospitalized and ultimately received a general discharge from the Army with a "misconduct, serious offense" notation. He lost his college benefits. His life is shattered. He delivers pizza on Wednesdays to get by.
As he finished his testimony, Goldsmith named his commanding officers and announced, "I have a message for you." He sprang to his feet, held his fingers in a V and cried: "Peace!"