Inspired by Thomas Paine's dismissal of "sunshine patriots," and following the example of Vietnam War vets 37 years earlier, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations came together for three days, March 13-16, 2008, under the banner of Winter Soldier.
At the George Meany National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., the vets related their eyewitness accounts of the occupations, described their sense of betrayal and shame, and the transformations, personal and political, which still occupy them.
Iraq Veterans Against the War, event organizers, described the purpose of the testimonies: Once again, we are fighting for the soul of our country. We will demonstrate our patriotism by speaking out with honor and integrity instead of blindly following failed policy. Winter Soldier is a difficult but essential service to our country.
The vets described what they did and what they witnessed which made them first question and then oppose the occupations. They talked about how their initial exhilaration turned into resentment, anger, fear and a sense of betrayal as they realized that rather than freeing Iraq they were occupiers making up rules of engagement to maintain control of the population.
The young men and women who went to Iraq with high ideals of liberation and service to the Iraqi people described how their humanity was diminished by the realities of military occupation and a repressive U.S. government agenda.
These veterans are heroes who love their country. Many are proud to have served in the military even as they now realize that the war they were sent to, and the policies which led to it are criminally wrong and immoral. They have done the excruciatingly hard work of facing themselves and seeking the truth about their experience and behavior.
What are we to make of these testimonies? As the people who pay the taxes for, and in whose name the U.S. government prosecutes war, what is our responsibility? Now that we know that the reasons given for invading Iraq were lies, how must we respond?
The Winter Soldier testifiers provide us with at least a partial answer. Just as they had to come to grips with what they did in Iraq and returned to try and save the soul of our country, we citizens must come to grips with our own complicity in the policies and behavior of the leaders of our democratic republic; we must become Winter Citizens. We who love this country must face up to the reality of its behavior in the world. We must learn that Iraq and Afghanistan are not "mistakes" of the Bush administration but rather part of an overarching policy framework that precedes by decades the current presidency, including both Democratic and Republican administrations.
As Winter Citizens we must resolve never again naively to accept government propaganda that plays on our fears and too easily prescribes military violence to address complex international issues. We must expand and deepen our historical memory and prevent duplicitous leaders from taking our country into more unjust wars. We must be critical of those who divide the world into good and evil, of policies which serve the wealthy to the detriment of the common good, which send the children of the poor to wars which benefit the hyper-wealthy.
While the Constitution says "We, the People," formed our union, it was written and adopted by white, male landowners; everyone else was excluded. The proud history of this nation is the nonviolent struggle and immense effort of ordinary men and women to make "the people" include landless men, African-Americans, women, and all people of color. Enormous efforts are still being made to consolidate those gains and to bring into our national embrace people with disabilities, with differing sexual orientations and genders.
This history, unfinished as it is, demonstrates that we can take collective action to force change and grow toward our best ideals and values, that we are one people who, across the political spectrum, value fairness, kindness, generosity, compassion, responsibility, equality, integrity, honesty and freedom.
The final lesson of Winter Soldier is that as Winter Citizens we can reclaim our power and save the soul of our country.
Joseph Gainza is the Vermont program coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee.
© 2008 Rutland Herald