Iraq Vets Against the War, March 13–16, 2008
Title: “Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations”
War Comes Home, Pacifica Radio, March 14–16, 2008
Title: “Winter Soldier 2008 Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations”
Co-hosts: Aaron Glantz, Aimee Allison, and Esther Manilla
One World, March 19, 2008
Title: “US Soldiers ‘Testify’ About War Crimes”
Author: Aaron Glantz
The Nation, July 30, 2007
Title: “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness”
Authors: Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian
Student Researchers: April Pearce, Erica Elkington, and Kat Pat Crespán
Community Evaluator: Bob Alpern
Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are coming forward to recount the brutal impact of the ongoing occupations. An investigation by the Nation (July 2007) and the Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Maryland, in March 2008, which was organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War and brought together over 300 veterans, have made their experiences public. Soldiers’ harrowing testimony of atrocities they witnessed or participated in directly indicate a structural problem in the US military that has created an environment of lawlessness. Some international law experts say 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. Though BBC predicted that the Winter Soldier event would dominate headlines around the world that week, there was a near total back-out on this historic news event by the US corporate media.1
Dozens of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupation publicly testified at the four-day Winter Soldier gathering about crimes they committed during the course of battle—many of which were prompted by the orders or policies laid down by superior officers. Such crimes include targeting innocent, unarmed civilians for murder and detention, destroying property, desecrating corpses, severely abusing detainees (often torturing to death), and using corpses for medical practice.
Winter Soldier 2008 was organized to demonstrate that well-publicized incidents of US brutality, including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of Haditha, were 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 veterans also stressed the similarities between the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, “. . . units that are getting the exact same training and the exact same orders are being sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan,” explains a former US Army Medic.
The Nation investigation vividly documents the experiences of fifty combat veterans of the Iraq occupation. Their testimonies reveal that American troops lack the training and support to communicate with or even understand Iraqi civilians. They were offered little to no cultural or historical education about the country they control. Translators are in short supply and often unqualified. Interviewed vets said stereotypes about Islam and Arabs that soldiers and marines arrive with tend to solidify rapidly in the close confines of the military and the risky streets of Iraqi cities into a crude racism. Veterans said the culture of this counterinsurgency war, in which most Iraqi civilians were assumed to be hostile, made it difficult for soldiers to sympathize with their victims—at least until they returned home and had a chance to reflect. Former US Army Sergeant Logan Laituri argues, “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, so when that atmosphere exists it lends itself to criminal activity.”
International law expert Benjamin Ferencz, who served as chief prosecutor of Nazi War Crimes at Nuremberg after World War II, told OneWorld that none of the veterans who testified 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.” 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.
Many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return home deeply disturbed by the disparity between the reality of the occupations and the way they are portrayed by the US government and American media. The occupation the vets describe is a dark and even depraved enterprise, one that bears a powerful resemblance to other misguided and brutal colonial wars and occupations, from the French occupation of Algeria to the American war in Vietnam and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. Although international and independent US media covered Winter Soldier ubiquitously, there was an almost complete media blackout on this event by US mainstream media (see Chapter 12).
1. “Why Are Winter Soldiers Not News?” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, March 19, 2008.
UPDATE BY AARON GLANTZ, AIMEE ALLISON,
AND ESTHER MANILLA
The veterans who spoke at Winter Soldier could have stayed silent. They could have accepted parades and accolades of heroism and blended back into society, and the world would have never known about the terrible atrocities they committed or witnessed in Iraq or Afghanistan. By coming forward to share their stories at considerable risk to their honor, however, these veterans have done a great service, permanently changing the historical record of “what happened” in the war zones.
While their testimony continues to be largely ignored by the mainstream media (to date the New York Times, CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS have failed to cover it), their words were not in vain. Our three-day broadcast lead to a Capitol Hill hearing in front of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. During our March broadcast, we brought on the Caucus’s co-chair, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, as a guest by phone from California and allowed two veterans to join us in conducting the interview. In opening remarks at Winter Soldier on the Hill, Lee referenced that interview.
“I remember one of the persons I talked with wanted to know why there weren’t any members of Congress there,” she said. “And someone asked me over the interview ‘Well, what about having a hearing in Washington, DC?’ And I said ‘Right.’”
On May 15, 2008, nine Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans stood before the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is co-chaired by Lee and Congresswomen Lynne Woolsey. A half dozen other Congress members also participated and or listened to the three-hour testimony. Many of the representatives in attendance were visibly moved by it and Congresswoman Maxine Waters applauded the veterans for their bravery. KPFA and Pacifica Radio broadcast the hearing live.
Just as importantly, our three-day live broadcast showed many veterans they were not alone. During the course of both broadcasts, we were deluged with phone calls, e-mails, and blog posts from service members, veterans, and military families thanking us for breaking a cultural norm of silence about the reality of war. Since then, we have heard from many veterans about the importance our broadcast and how it impacted them personally. One soldier, Sergeant Matthis Chiroux, said learning about Winter Soldier caused him to refuse his orders to deploy to Iraq.
Before Winter Soldier, Chiroux said he was suicidal. “I just sat in my room reading news about Iraq and feeling completely hopeless, like I would be forced to go and no one would ever know how I felt,” he said. “I was getting looped into participating in a crime against humanity and all with the realization that I never wanted to be there in the first place.”
The turning point, Chiroux said, came when one of his professors at Brooklyn College in New York suggested he listen to a broadcast of March’s Winter Soldier hearings. “Here’s an organization of soldiers and veterans who feel like me,” he said. “All this alienation and depression that I feel started to ease. I found them, and I’ve been speaking out with them ever since.”
Since Silver Spring in March, regional Winter Soldier hearings have been organized across the country. New veterans are stepping forward to tell their stories and those who spoke in Maryland are revealing more about the reality of their service. To date, regional hearings have been held in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Gainesville, Florida. In Seattle, 800 people gathered to hear veterans’ testimonies. Many more are expected to be organized in the future. With their continued testimony, veterans’ stories have become their most powerful weapon.