by Carol Grier
April 17th, 2008
They were dressed all in black, in the hundreds, marching single
file, with white death masks and the names and ages of war victims on
placards 'round each of their necks. I caught my breath and watched
in anguishthis after having listened to three grueling days of
eyewitness accounts of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations at The
Winter Soldier Hearings in Washington D.C. last month. Five years on,
and there's no end in sightanother quagmire.
As a child of the 60's and 70's, I am still impacted by multiple
tragedies of the Vietnam War. I know many families who were split
politically and are still not healed. Countless Vietnam vets living
in nests under bushes or in encampments under bridges across the
nation are "survivors" still unable to come to terms with the illegal
and immoral war in which they were used by their government and
thrown away like so much refuse. More Vietnam veterans have died
since the war by their own hand than were actually killed in Vietnam.
And thousands more tragic stories from the Vietnamese too, should
have taught usbut here we are again.
Tens of thousands of Vietnam "draft dodgers" and Americans who
opposed their government came to Canada and have made this country
their home. I now count myself among them. I made Canada my home as a
result of America's latest wars and occupationsthose of Iraq and
Afghanistan. I can no longer support a country that imposes its free
market religion on the rest of the planet at gunpoint. Arundhati
Roy's words come to mind "–when the soul of [my] country worships violence."
With this ache in my heart I went to Washington to commemorate the
fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Though I've been back
from D.C. for some time now, I can't erase the words and images of
soldiers' testimonies from my mind.
The Winter Soldier hearings bore out my pre-war fears. Though not
visibly wounded, these young men and women will carry the mental and
emotional scars of war with them for the remainder of their days.
They spoke in graphic detail–of running over civilians as if they
were bumps in the road with their Humvees, of planting weapons on
dead civilians to make them look like insurgents, and showed photos
and video of the true human cost of war and occupationoozing brains
and entrails, torture, and the constant drumbeat of racism, sexism
and dehumanization to make it possible to kill the enemy and
annihilate his country. These were not the sanitized images that we
see on the nightly news.
The first Winter Soldier hearings held in 1971, were an attempt by
Vietnam Veterans Against the War to show that the My Lai Massacre was
not just caused by "a few bad apples," but by the immorality of the
war itself. John Kerry, who participated in the first Winter Soldier
Investigation explained prior to his testimony to Congress: "We who
have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have
to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we
could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what
went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this
country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not
redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it,
that we have to speak out."
Perry O'Brien, an Afghanistan war veteran (a medic), Winter Soldier
organizer, and now Conscientious Objector, suggested in an online
video interview that there is an unofficial "don't ask don't tell"
policy between military personnel and civilians–civilians want to
glorify the warrior, but don't want to hear the gory details of war.
He suggests that the people at home have a willful ignorance that
goes hand in hand with the military telling soldiers that the
civilian psyche can't handle the reality of war and that soldiers
should keep what they do in war to themselves.
Winter Soldiers speaking publicly will allow citizens to understand
the reality and true cost of war. For soldiers, it's a chance to
unburden themselves of what they've done in the name of so called
patriotism, freedom and democracy–and to vent their anger over being
used for naked imperialism.
Upon returning home, it's taken some time to integrate what I saw and
experienced in D.C. The faces of those young vets are seared into my
mind along with the faces of war resisters I've met personally who
have come to Canada to say no to this latest illegal and immoral war.
These young men and women are often met with the opinion that they
should not be allowed to stay in Canada because they are part of
America's new volunteer army and a contract is a contract.
We know that the US government lies. The "all volunteer army" is in
fact, a poverty draft. Testosterone laced recruitment campaigns
featuring F-16s, helicopters and aircraft carriers appeal to youthful
idealism and dreams of adventure while promising job skills, and
being part of something greater than oneselfnot to mention large
signing bonuses and college tuition. All this sounds mighty fine to
young men and women without prospects following high school
graduation. This deliberate targeting of the most vulnerable and
destitute in society for use as cannon fodder is despicable and
sickening at best. There is little resistance to war without a
draftas long as there are willing bodies to go off to the latest
manufactured conflictto fight for our 'way of life,' to keep us safe
from the bogeyman du jour.
The reality for soldiers returning home is that the war is no longer
a topic of conversationeither in the news, or on the public's mind.
One soldier described his dismay one night in a bar when someone
remarked on his uniform and exclaimed, "You mean we're still over
there?!" And if soldiers are not forced to return to the war zone for
second, third, or even fourth tours of duty, many have to fight a
gargantuan bureaucracy to have their physical and mental wounds
attended to. For many, that deferred college education becomes a low
priority as they try to rebuild their shattered lives and survive
just one more day fighting internal demons or PTSD. Is it any wonder
that there is an epidemic of suicides among veteransover 120 per week in 2005?
So I return from D.C. with a recommitment to align myself especially
with soldiers who have the courage to speak out against war and
militarism–Americans and Canadians alike. It's they who can end the
scourge of war because they speak with the moral authority of those
who have been there and know war's realities.
War is an ongoing cycle of death, destruction, and horror, and Canada
can do better. She can welcome U.S. War Resisters once again with
open arms. She can reassert her leadership in the world as a
peacemaking and peacekeeping nation, and stop following the criminal
conduct of the U.S. government, and bring her soldiers home.
I urge you to listen to the Winter Soldier testimony at www.ivaw.org
and to support War Resisters at www.resisters.ca.