In March of 2008, over 200 Iraqi Vets Against the War (IVAW) gathered for four days to give testimony about their experiences in Iraq.
Article by John Grant
After four days of testimony from Iraq Veterans Against The War at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, MD, one thing is clear, IVAW has reached a level of maturity that puts proponents and defenders of the war in Iraq on notice that the organization is not to be taken lightly. From Friday to Sunday on panels with titles such as “Rules Of Engagement,” “Divide and Conquer: Gender and Sexuality in the Military,” “Racism and War: The Dehumanization of the Enemy,” “The Cost of War at home,” and finally “The Future of GI Resistance,” over 60 Iraq, Afghanistan or Guantanamo veterans and active duty soldiers simply told their stories, often in graphic and emotional detail. An audience heavily made up of veterans and members of the media with cameras and notepads filled the college’s auditorium space with many hundreds of listeners. The testimony was transmitted live via the internet and on various radio venues; Amy Goodman of Democracy Now broadcast from the site and is running the testimony all week.
A number of Iraq soldiers and veterans told how anger and fear contributed to a situation where the Rules Of Engagement handed to them in a tidy card quickly deteriorated into a free-for-all climate of indiscriminate shootings and killings. Patrols too often kicked in doors at 3 am, terrorizing families and tearing up their homes, only to find out it was the wrong house; they told how mistakes and fear led to tragic checkpoint shootings of innocents; how recon by fire and free fire zones were employed in urban areas, and, finally, how bodies were regularly ill-treated and photographed as trophies. Several vets testified to the wide use up and down the ranks of the term “haji,” a positive reference for any Muslim who has made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca turned on its head to mean someone sub-human — a term like “gook” or “slope” in the Vietnam War.
In one of the more graphic testimonies, Marine Jon Michael Turner, a young man with an intense gaze who served in Haiti and two tours in Iraq, opened his testimony by quoting a phrase heard in the Marines: “Eat the apple, fuck the Corps!” He, then, ripped the medals from his blue shirt and threw them to the floor in front of him. He described a dehumanizing process encouraged by superiors and peers and told of his first kill, an entirely innocent man he shot at close range in the neck and head; he told how he shot an apparently innocent man riding by on a bicycle during a hostile fire exchange, then dumped the body behind some trash. He said his Marine commander offered a prize of a 4-day pass to anyone who killed his first Iraqi with a knife. He showed photos of grisly head wounds and a brief video of a commander on a radio telling someone on the other end, “I think I just killed half the population of Ramadi.” In closing, Turner said, “I’m sorry for the hate and destruction I have inflicted on people in Iraq.” He said the killing would not stop until Americans knew what was happening in their name. He said he was no longer the monster he had been.
“There’s no question we ransacked homes under orders,” Scott Ewing testified. ” In the best situations in Iraq, civilians still die. The insurgency still rages on. In the end, the only successful war the US has waged is a propaganda war against its own people.”
In a statement released while the hearings were in process, a Pentagon spokesman dismissed the testimony as “isolated incidents;” he suggested that commanders always conducted “comprehensive investigations to determine the facts and (hold) individuals accountable.” IVAW responded with the following statement:
“These service members and veterans’ testimonies are ultimately not about individual conduct, but about the nature of occupation. The military is being asked to win an occupation. The troops on the ground know this is an impossible task. Their commanders know this is an impossible task. We’re asking the Department Of Defense to stop saying that it can achieve the impossible. We have a political problem that cannot be solved with a military solution. This is not a war that can be won. It is an occupation that can only be ended.”
A large and imposing presence of members of a Gathering Of Eagles and other right-wing, pro-war groups had been threatened, but it never materialized. There was a gathering of maybe 20 people out by the road, far away from the college hall in which the testimony was held. Security for the event was quite tight. One unlucky pro-war advocate did make it in to the auditorium and tried to disrupt a panel, but once he opened his mouth he was rudely clothes-lined and hauled out screaming by a very large, red-shirted Security member. The panel speaker paused slightly, said “OK” and continued his testimony in mid-sentence.
A sergeant in Iraq e-mailed IVAW during the hearing that he and his squad were watching the testimony on line and wanted to join. The word on Sunday from the IVAW staff was that membership applications were coming in faster than they could field them. So one should expect a strong boost in IVAW membership.
In its statements and releases, IVAW lays out four responsible and practical goals in Iraq.
1) The complete removal of all US occupation forces from Iraq.
2) Full benefits and care for returning soldiers and veterans.
3) Reparations for Iraq to re-build the country on its terms.
Right-wing opponents of Winter Soldier often criticize the hearings (both WSI and WSII) by saying the testifying veterans are “phony” and that the testimony is not under oath. Well, if this is their concern, there is a very easy and effective way to call the question. All US Congressional committees are in the hands of Democrats. Many of those who testified March 14, 15 and 16 in Maryland testified that they would be happy to have their military records checked and to testify before Congress under oath about their experiences in Iraq. Marine Lars Ekstrom held his hands four feet off the table and said, “I’ll testify on a stack of Bibles.”
Since the major US media willfully embargoed the Winter Soldier story from its pages and screens (the Washington Post did a story in its Local section) congressional testimony would create the buzz to get the important story covered. The fact is, Winter Soldiers is mis-characterized when the emphasis is on “atrocities.” What the testimonies essentially amount to is young US soldiers, many of them carrying very heavy emotional burdens, telling of their experiences in a US counter-insurgency war that, so far, has been sanitized for the American people. Many of the testifiers spoke of joining the military to do good things and how they learned too late what horror war really is. None of the testifiers would deny that American soldiers do honorable and courageous things in Iraq. That’s not the issue. The issue is the strategic decision to invade and occupy Iraq and the harsh climate of racist hatred and violence it created that these young men and women found themselves caught up in to survive. It is that real life human story that the right-wing and pro-war apologists do not want told. As the courageous young Jon Michael Turner told the Winter Soldier audience on Saturday, the American people need to hear these stories.
Former Army Sergeant Camilo Mejia, author of the excellent memoir The Road From ar Ramadi, refused to re-deploy to Iraq and served nine months in federal prison. Mejia is chairman of the IVAW board. He closed the four-day event this way:
“We have seen the eyes of the children whose doors we have kicked in. We have challenged the official story. We have dared to think for ourselves. This has been an immense success. We could not be happier. Today marks the birth of a new Winter Soldier movement.”
John Grant is a member of Veterans For Peace and lives in Philadelphia.