Pacifica's Live Winter Soldier Broadcast: March 14th to 16th
In 1776, Thomas Paine wrote: "These are the times that try men's souls. 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."
Iraq Veterans Against the War argues that well-publicised incidents of U.S. brutality like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of Haditha are not the isolated incidents perpetrated by "a few bad apples", as many politicians and military leaders have claimed. They are part of a pattern, the group says, of "an increasingly bloody occupation."
"What's going on is were trying to create a space for veterans to speak out and change the rhetoric around the war from these politicians with these ideologies that have no real experience on the ground," said Aaron Hughes, a former member of the Illinois National Guard who spent a year running convoys in Iraq. "There are human beings on both sides. There are not just numbers. That's what missing in our culture. This was has been statistics, it's been rhetoic, and it's not personal. But for the American soldiers who've served there it is personal and for the Iraqi people who live there it's personal. That's why our testimony is important."
"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," argues former U.S. Army Sergeant Logan Laituri, who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before being discharged as a conscientious objector.
Laituri explains that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt in the rules of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines. When he was stationed in Samarra, for example, he said one of his fellow soldiers shot an unarmed man while he walked down the street.
"The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime as you might call it because the rules of engagement were very clear that no one was supposed to be walking down the street," he said. "But I have a problem with that. You can't tell a family to leave everything they know so you can bomb the shit out of their house or their city. So while he definitely has protection under the law, I don't think that legitimates that type of violence."
The veterans also want to stress the similarities between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The exact same units that are getting the exact same training and the exact same orders are getting sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan," explains Perry O'brien, a former US Army Medic who became a conscientious objector after his tour in Afghanistan. "What we're seeing is a lot of similarities between practices in both countries and both are equally criminal."
"Something that I personally witnessed and that I'm going to be submitting testimony on is the use of civilian corpses for medical practice," he added. "When a patient would die we would hear over the PA system we would hear an announcement through the clinc saying 'Who wants to learn how to do a chest tube?' or 'Who wants to know what a human heart looks like?' Rather than giving the proper treatment of the dead, the body would become a cadaver for medical practice with no consent from the victim."
Winter Soldier is modeled on a similar event held by Vietnam Veterans 37 years ago.
In 1971, over 100 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War gathered in Detroit to share their stories with fellow citizens. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre had ignited popular opposition to the war, but political and military leaders insisted that such crimes were isolated exceptions.
Among those in attendance was 27-year-old Navy Lieutenant John Kerry, who had served on a Swift Boat in Vietnam. Three months after the hearings, Nicosia notes, Kerry took his case to Congress and spoke before a jammed Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans packed the seats.
"Many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia," Kerry told the committee, describing the events of the Winter Soldier gathering.
"It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit - the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do."
In one of the most famous antiwar speeches of the era, Kerry concluded: "Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be - and these are his words - 'the first president to lose a war'. We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War can prove similarly historic especially in encouraging an increase in the amount of GI Resistance against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This event is going to empower soldiers to follow their conscience whaterver that means for them," says Camilo Mejia, the Chair of the Board of Iraq Veterans Against the War. "The kinds of things we're talking about are non-partisan. They're non-political. They have to do with human being trapped in this atrocity producing situation."