While there is fervent debate about whether it is useful to compare Iraq today with the earlier American war on Vietnam, one constant in both conflicts has been the willingness of American soldiers to speak out against their own Government‘s criminal foreign policies.
In January 1971, with the war in south-east Asia going increasingly badly and becoming increasingly unpopular at home, over 100 Vietnam veterans gathered in Detroit to publicly testify about the atrocities the US military were committing against the Vietnamese people. Taking inspiration from revolutionary hero Thomas Paine‘s call for patriots to speak up for their country in times of crisis, what became known as the Winter Soldier Investigation brought uncensored, often horrific, firsthand accounts of the war to the American public. "My testimony", stated veteran Scott Camil at the time, "involves burning of villages with civilians in them, the cutting off of ears, cutting off of heads, torturing of prisoners, calling in of artillery on villages for games, corpseman killing wounded prisoners…"
Thirty-seven years later in March this year, over 200 American veterans came together again just outside Washington D.C. to testify in Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. "We‘ve heard from the politicians, we‘ve heard from the generals, we‘ve heard from the media – now it‘s our turn" said Kelly Dougherty, Executive Director of Iraq Veterans Against The War. "We believe that the only way this war is going to end is if the American people truly understand what we have done in their name."
Throughout the four day session veterans, along with scholars and journalists, presented oral, photographic and video evidence on a variety of topics, including the ever-changing rules of engagement, the dehumanisation of Iraqis, the beating and shooting of innocent civilians, sexual harassment within the US military and corporate pillaging.
Like the Vietnam Winter Soldier hearings, the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans‘ gripping and often tearful testimony highlighted how the atrocities committed by American troops are not simply down to ‘a few bad apples‘ but are systematic and continuous and, importantly, a direct consequence of the increasingly bloody occupations.
Stripping his medals from his chest and throwing them on the floor, Jon Michael Turner gave a deeply personal account of his time in Iraq, admitting he had his first kill in April 2006. "This man was innocent. I don‘t know his name… He was walking back to his house, and I shot him in front of his friend and father."
Turner remembered "a lot of raids and patrols we did at night around 3:00 in the morning… And what we would do is just kick in the doors and terrorise the families… If the men of the household were giving us problems, we‘d go ahead and take care of them anyway we felt necessary, whether it was choking them or slamming their head against the walls." If you are wondering why you never see this behaviour on the news, Turner noted that, "any time we did have embedded reporters with us our actions would change drastically. We never acted the same. We were always on key with everything, did everything by the book."
Like many of the other veterans testifying, Turner concluded his testimony with a moving apology to the Iraqi people: "I am sorry for the hate and destruction that I have inflicted on innocent people.. I am no longer the monster I once was."
After describing how he had bombarded buildings inhabited by civilians, mortarman Hart Vignes of the 82nd Airborne Division gave an insight in to the lethal insanity of the occupation of Iraq. "I remember over the radio… one time they said to fire on all taxi cabs as the enemy was using them for transportation. In Iraq any car can be a taxi cab – you just paint it white and orange… the town pretty much lit up, all units fired on numerous cars."
Corporal Jason Washburn, stationed in Sadr City, Najaf and Anber Province, reported that commanders encouraged soldiers to take "‘drop weapons‘ or shovels" out on patrols "in case we accidentally shot a civilian, we could drop the weapon on the body and pretend they were an insurgent." By his third tour in Iraq, Washburn reported that the rules of engagement were so feeble that "if they [Iraqis] were carrying a shovel or bag, we could shoot them."
With nearly 200 more veterans giving similarly shocking evidence, Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan should have been one of the most important media events about the continuing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, helping to inform public opinion in the United States and around the world. Unfortunately the American mainstream media didn‘t agree, with the New York Times, CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS all ignoring the public hearings completely, while the Washington Post relegated the story to the local news section of the paper.
Except for a segment on BBC‘s Newsnight, coverage of these historic hearings have been little better in the British media. However, with the death of Baha Mousa, the beating of Iraqi youths by British soldiers caught on film and subsequently published by The News of the World and the sadistic photos from ‘Britain‘s Abu Graib‘ at Camp Bread Basket there is a more important question that needs to be asked here in Britain.
Where are the British Winter Soldier Investigations?
Testimony videos can be viewed at www.ivaw.org/wintersoldier
Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England. [email protected].