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Getting on the Bus for Justice: Veterans from Chicago and Northwest Indiana Participate in ‘Winter Soldier’ Hearings in Washington, DC Area


"Oh-dark-thirty":  military slang for "very early in the morning."  I remembered it as I delivered my wife, Hans Buwalda, to the Midwest regional office of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) at Diversey and Kimball at 12:30 am on March 13, 2008. 

Hans was traveling with about 40 veterans from the Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo wars (and other places around the world), plus spouses and partners, to participate in the "Winter Soldier:  Iraq and Afghanistan" hearings at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland.  Some of the men and women were planning to testify publicly about what they did or personally witnessed while in-country; others would testify privately, not being ready to speak in front of an audience.  Others were going along to provide emotional support.  And my wife, a psychotherapist on the "Mental Health" team, was riding the bus and going to help provide clinical and general support for any person who needed it throughout the four days and three nights of the hearings.

We arrived and went up into the office.  Vets from the current wars were hanging around, warily eying newcomers such as myself, although I soon found a number of folks that I knew.  All were tired, all seemed excited:  like almost any military operation, there is a tension that builds before things jump off.  What were they getting into?

These were mostly men and women who had served in the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan; a number had seen combat.  Some had killed; some had been wounded; some had seen friends die; and all had suffered in one way or the other:  yet each had survived, and they were determined to speak truth to power.  They had returned from the war-some had been against the war before going, yet honored their contract and went.  Others had been "true believers," only to see the horrors of war on their first, second or third tour in the country, and came to reject the war.  Some had been "stop-lossed," forced to remain on active duty after they were supposed to be released.  They had joined together in Iraq Veterans Against the War, emulating many Vietnam War veterans, and through these hearings, were hoping to tear the scab off of America’s indifference to this Bush’s current wars in the Middle East.

An unlikely band of heroes.  Yet, IVAW is an international organization, with almost 800 members at the time of the hearings-and over 1,000 subsequently; all men and women who had served in the US military since September 11, 2001.  The organization is comprised mostly of US military veterans, from active duty and reserve forces and the National Guard, but there are active duty chapters at Fort Drum, NY and Fort Hood, Texas.  Most members seem to have served in the Army, but there are a surprising number of ex-Marines, and there are some from the Navy and Air Force.  IVAW also has a growing number of members currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  (See www.ivaw.org.)

In an effort to intensify opposition to Bush and the Democrat’s war, IVAW decided to replicate the 1971 "Winter Soldier" hearings that had taken place in Detroit. (The name came in reference to a 1776 quote from revolutionary patriot Thomas Paine.)  In these earlier hearings that received almost no media attention at the time-the documentary of the hearings has been recently re-released as "Winter Soldier" and is available at www.wintersoldierfilm.com –Vietnam veterans had shown unequivocally that the "search and destroy" operations carried out by US forces were based on extreme violence and great brutality. Accordingly, events such as the My Lai massacre (of March 16, 1968) were common, not an aberration as the military and government had claimed.  (Gerald Nicosia covers the hearings in his 2001 book on the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement, Home to War.)

The 2008 Winter Soldier:  Iraq and Afghanistan hearings took place at the National Labor College.  Use of this facility had been arranged with the help of US Labor Against War, a national organization of trade unionists and their unions who have been leading the fight within Labor to get the AFL-CIO to actively oppose Bush’s war.

The hearings were comprised of a series of panels, beginning Friday night and concluding on Sunday.  In each panel, there were a number of speakers, sometimes including civilians as well as military.  There were panels on the history of resistance in the US military, with a discussion of the Vietnam experience, as well as reports on the impact of the war on military families, the misuse of the military in collecting Americans’ phone conversations through satellite operations since 9/11, and the terrible mistreatment of many veterans by the Veterans Administration.  There was also a panel on the future of resistance in the military.

Yet for this observer-who watched the IVAW.org live stream from Chicago-the heart of the hearings were a series of panels on the "Rules of Engagement," "Institutionalized Sexism in the Military," and "Dehumanization of Iraqis and US Forces."  Each of these panels had five or more veterans testifying about their experiences. 

The "Rules of Engagement" (ROE) are the military’s way of limiting force to the minimum necessary to achieve their "mission"-or that’s at least the rationale.   In reality, while some units limit their destruction, the ROE are often used by the military to "cover their ass" in case there are any questions asked. 

Yet, as the vets testified, no matter how honest the ROE were when they arrived, over time, they degenerated to where many troops basically had a license to kill.  And they did. 

The anguish in these vets’ voices, their stories and their body language, were proof positive that no matter how much they had believed in the mission-they had been told they were going there to help the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, supposedly protecting our country-they had seen and done things that they could never forget.  And that the violence and brutality was widespread and extensive-completely unlike the "humanitarianism" pronounced by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that was supposedly used to shield civilians from US military violence.  Spectre gunships, artillery, and scared troops are not precision weapons-and even supposedly precision weapons often aren’t.

For US troops, one of the differences between Iraq and Vietnam are the considerable number of women in the ranks. Even though women are not supposed to see combat, the nature of guerilla warfare, and especially urban guerrilla warfare, breaks down artificial barriers.  Women are not confined to safe situations, far behind the lines; many are exposed to enemy attacks, and the ever-present risk of mortars and IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) in the roads.  A number of female soldiers and Marines have been killed. 

And yet, for a number of testifiers, the institutionalized sexism of the US military played an essential role in the training of both males and females.  The worst thing that any male could be called was a "wuss," cause that meant he showed emotion and/or weakness:  having compassion or concern about victims might get him to think about what he was really doing.  And yet, this also came around, as many women have been subjected to sexual harassment, faced improper sexual come-ons, and even rape from their male "comrades."  In some cases, women expressed more fear of their male peers than they did of the enemy:  for example, women cut down on liquid consumption towards the end of the day, endangering their health in the heat, so they wouldn’t have to venture toward the latrines after dark; and many, when they had to go, carried their bayonets to protect them from assault by male troops.

This dehumanization of American troops-cause that’s what really it is-in turn, got taken out on Iraqi and Afghani civilians.  The racist term "hadji" was used constantly:  Iraqis and Afghanis were treated as sub-human, so any violence against them was "understandable."  (Commonalities with usage of the terms "gook" or "nigger" are intentional.)  Of course, our troops were to abide by the stated Rules of Engagement, unless they considered themselves threatened-and then all restrictions were off.  And in an environment where our troops are not wanted, where the threat to their lives was ever-present, and where stress is the usual state of affairs, it took very little to feel threatened.

The stories are much more poignant than this writer can adequately convey, so I’ve not picked out quotes to illustrate.  Others have done that, and often well.  I would rather encourage Substance readers to go to the IVAW website-again, www.ivaw.org–and watch the archived presentations by the men and women who served, and their supporters.  Some of the stories are extremely painful, and there are some gruesome (aka real) pictures as well, so they are best viewed with friends-and not when one is feeling vulnerable.

There are two other things that need to be considered that were very innovatory.  IVAW had done some incredibly good outreach to the media, seeking the widest coverage possible. 

These hearings were broadcast and reported around the world, including by internationally known outlets such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Company), Agence French Press, and the "Arab CNN," Al-Jazeera, so people around the world learned about these hearings.  Surprisingly, media oriented toward the US military provided considerable coverage, with articles appearing in the Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy Times, as well as the daily international military paper, Stars and Stripes.  (IVAW has been subsequently contacted by troops currently on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.) 

The hearings were also carried extensively by alternative media in the US, with live gavel-to-gavel coverage, and excellent commentary by a range of very professional media personnel.  The entire set of hearings were streamed live by IVAW, and were also broadcast live by KPFA over the Pacifica Radio Network and live over Free Speech TV, as well as with reports on a wide range of alternative media programs such as "Democracy Now!"  Michael Moore has been very supportive, posting many items on his web site (www.michaelmoore.com), and there has been excellent reports in The Progressive, In These Times, Z, The Nation, and Alternet, plus powerful videos on Z Net and The Nation’s web site.  (See Jeff Cohen’s article on Winter Soldier and the alternative media at www.huffingtonpost.com/jeff-cohen/iraq-winter-soldier-heari_b_91776.html.)  It would be hard to imagine a more professional effort, and there will be continuing stories published in the coming time period.

Yet, with few exceptions, there was one glaring shortcoming in the media coverage:  the mainstream media outlets in the United States, both print and television, refused to cover the hearings.  To date (this is being written on March 29), I have seen no coverage in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal; nothing on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC or Fox; and nothing in Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report.  There was an article in the Washington Post, but it was in the Metro section, and not in the national pages in the front section.  Time had an article, albeit not very good.  And the Christian Science Monitor had a better article that was on the top page of its web site.  A few less prominent newspapers-Boston Globe and Boston Herald, the New York Sun, and others-have carried reports.  (If you google "Winter Soldier:  Iraq and Afghanistan," you can find out much of what has appeared.) 

To my way of thinking, there is something wrong when a serious set of hearings-focusing on the behavior of US troops acting in our name-that is made available to people around the world and yet is not made available to most Americans.  This seems very anti-democratic to me.  It also seems as though there is a conscious effort being made to manipulate the US public by refusing to provide essential information that challenges the "mainstream" positions on the war.

And finally, a few words on the mental health aspects to the hearings.  Many of those testifying suffer from PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and there was a serious risk that testifying-or even participating in the hearings-would release the demons locked in people’s memories.  IVAW-and here my wife gets credit for arguing the need for mental health services, before, during and after the hearings for all participants (including members of the media while on-site)-made a major effort to ensure people’s safety and well-being.

I’m not sure about other regions of the country, but in the Great Lakes and Great Plains regions, potential testifiers were checked to see if they had mental health support or, if they didn’t have it, they were linked to providers before the hearings.  As far as I know, every vet who responded to these efforts had such support-and extensive efforts were made to get vets to respond.  These services were provided by mental health volunteers in the local areas.

At the hearings themselves, each publicly testifying vet had a "home battle buddy," a veteran present to provide peer-counseling support throughout the entire proceedings.  (Vietnam Veterans Against the War-VVAW-provided security throughout the hearings, supporting their IVAW brothers and sisters.)  Additionally, there were licensed clinicians on site 24 hours a day, throughout the testimony to give support to those testifying, other veterans, as well as those in the audience, including spouses and significant others, as well as media people covering the event.  All kinds of people availed themselves of these on-site services.

Additionally, each veteran in this region who testified has been contacted after getting home, to make sure they are hooked up with a local mental health provider if needed and/or getting whatever support they need.  Some have been speaking and organizing against the war since their return, getting their mental health back through political activity.

When they returned to the Midwest, these vets and their supporters were both exhausted and exhilarated.  These folks had pulled off a major operation to undercut the war effort, bringing veterans from around the country to DC, helping to build opposition to Bush and the Democrats’ on-going wars.  These men and women spoke truth to power, saying things from which the American public has been shielded, and doing it through publicly reporting their first-hand experiences.  Others may disagree, and some will even try to undercut IVAW’s efforts.  But the truth is out, on-line for all to see. 

I can think of no better way to "support the troops" than by at least listening to them.  Hear their stories, feel their pain-and then get off your butt and work to ensure IVAW’s points of unity are attained:  (1) pull the troops out now; (2) provide full medical and psychological services to all who served, regardless of military discharge given; and (3) pay reparations and help rebuild Iraq!

I think this should become the official project of the Chicago Teachers Union, and of each of us who teach students at any level of education.

Wage Peace!

Kim Scipes, Ph.D., served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1969-73, attaining the rank of Sergeant and receiving an Honorable Discharge.  He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, IN.  He, his wife, daughter and son live in Logan Square neighborhood in Chicago.

 

Published in Substance, an education policy newspaper in Chicago April 2008

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