Published in The Baltimore Chronicle.Winter Soldiers testify
On the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the euphemistically named Coalition, the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) held a gathering of Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in Silver Spring, Maryland. They spent the entire weekend testifying before an audience about the experiences that turned them against the war. Staunch patriots all, these brave men and women of principle were following the precedent of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War who met in Detroit in 1971 to testify about the atrocities and wrongs they witnessed, or committed, in their
American war. As John Kerry, a leader of the VVAW, explained
back then in an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "the term 'Winter Soldier' is a play on [the] words of Thomas Paine in 1776 when he spoke of the Sunshine Patriot and summertime soldiers who deserted at Valley Forge because the going was rough. . . We feel we have to be winter soldiers now. . .we have to speak out."
It takes a special kind of courage and independence to reject a war you have fought in intensely yourself, as the Winter Soldiers have. But the hard time, the soldier's "winter," the time to bear witness, is back here at home for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans for many reasons. Joyce and Kevin Lucey told the story of how their son who returned couldn't be prevented from committing suicide because he was tormented by the memories of what he had done and the VA hospital would not help him. The soldier's "winter," the greatest test of endurance, is back here for every returning soldier tormented by things he or she witnessed overseas--memories of children shot in cars or blown apart by mines, of old women set on fire while carrying a big bag of groceries, of families guilty of nothing terrorized in their homes, of every taxi in Baghdad made a target by an arbitrary US command, of innocent Iraqi prisoners dying after days of suffering. It's not "easy" to forget any of that, but it's easier to try to get on with your life than to speak out about what you saw and take a stand against war as these veterans have chosen to do. So the Winter Soldiers are fighting another battle here at home for their sanity and for what's right as they now see it after what they witnessed in the military.
The testimony in Silver Spring was largely ignored by the mainstream media and not even covered on progressive sites like CounterPunch, Common Dreams, Mother Jones,
or In These Times
. In the Washington Post
it was covered, but in the B Section as a local story
; there was also a brief AP story.
As Jeff Cohen has pointed out
, however, some independent media provided feeds of the event. Democracy Now
with Amy Goodman covered it with highlights of the testimony, and KPFA Pacifica Radio broadcast all of it live, so that what Cohen calls "a significant minority of Americans" had access to it. If mainstream media had provided some of that access the effect might have been extraordinarily different, and there might be something more like the mood of this country in 1971. (The Winter Soldier conference can be viewed on the IVAW website
Indeed, reports indicate that today the mainstream media devotes only a tiny percentage of space to any aspect of the Iraq war. It has become less than a sound bite. The Democrats allude to getting out; the Republicans to staying in. But few want to talk about what's happening there, or what we've done, as the Winter Soldier speakers did. In sharp contrast, receiving widespread coverage, Vice President Cheney made a quick trip to Iraq and reported that "It's been a difficult, challenging, but nonetheless successful endeavor. We've come a long way in five years and it's been well worth the effort." Just a few words of wishful thinking are enough. Sen. McCain made a similar quick trip and a similar whitewash statement.
Winter Soldier, however underplayed in the media, was a powerful moment. On this fifth anniversary of America's Iraq invasion it shone a blindingly clear light on the realities of the invasion--on its ugliness and brutality. Notably, it shone light on a constantly changing and opportunistic set of Rules of Engagement. One soldier spoke of his men carrying shovels on patrol, because they were instructed to consider anyone shoveling hostile, so if they shot someone by accident, they'd throw a shovel on them so they could claim they followed the Rules of Engagement. The Winter Soldier speakers also made it abundantly clear that racist epithets like "Haji" for anyone in Iraq who is not "us" came from the top down, from the generals--as the film Taxi to the Dark Side
clearly shows the brutality of the prisons also did. What went wrong
It's hard to know if the Iraq war has been more horrible than other wars. Obviously the public was sold on it through an unusually blatant pack of lies; but some of the atrocities described by Vietnam vets in 1971 sound more gruesome than the new ones from Winter Solder 2008. The fact is, brutality is brutality. Many other things are different from war to war. They are both unnecessary wars, but the differences between Vietnam and Iraq are great. One thing that's notably different about Iraq is that the US "won" the war there almost immediately--and then preceded to lose it again thereafter during the five chaotic years of occupation that have followed--so far.
The "Shock and Awe" invasion brought down Saddam Hussein's hated regime in a matter of days and military victory took little more than three weeks to achieve. But beginning with the Provisional Authority headed by L. Paul Bremer III, the US occupation of Iraq was spectacularly mismanaged. It's impossible to say how much incidental American brutality and cultural insensitivity might have still been tolerated by the Iraqi people if order had been maintained; if the ministries and the national library and archaeological museum had been saved and the looting held in check; if the hospitals had been re-supplied, electrical generators and water purification restored; if top ranking military cadres had not been arbitrarily banished and de-Baathification not begun. Of course proper handling of the immediate and long term aftermath of the invasion would have required prior planning that did not exist. If there was anything that could be done wrong, it was. This seems very different from Vietnam: in Iraq the US in effect created
the very kind of counterinsurgency that American troops were sent to Vietnam to fight. US forces have stayed on in Iraq in an increasingly chaotic and dangerous situation on the pretense of maintaining security and creating a democracy, while increasing hostility, instability, and general chaos through their presence.
This is what the Winter Soldiers witnessed, along with the brutal policies and racism against the Iraqis transmitted to them from their superiors. Iraq became and remains a very dangerous place. It is hard to conceive that it would be worse if the US withdrew. However, this does not seem likely to happen, because we went in to an important degree for the oil, and the oil remains. Again in contrast to Vietnam, the Iraqis don't seem unified by any particular aims, other than to get their country back and drive out the occupation.
Unlike Vietnam, the US still wants to keep its hands on Iraqi resources. America wouldn't just lose face by leaving Baghdad as with Saigon but would lose a strategic location. Only in political terms that location is long gone. Another big difference from Southeast Asia: the US's addictive connection to a nearby country, Israel--an allegiance beyond all reason, which alienates America from the vast majority of the populations of the Middle East.
So there are two ways of looking at the Iraq war and occupation (and the general failure in Afghanistan), the one that is humanitarian and the one that is cool and calculating. Either way it is hard to see the benefit of continued occupation, but hard to imagine Washington making any dramatic shifts, regardless of the suffering of the Iraqis and Afghans and of American veterans. Some things, like supporting the Zionist state and holding onto the sources of Middle East oil, are more important than either human decency or rational thought.