Jason Vick, regular columnist
Thursday, March 27; 12:00 AM
Not even two weeks ago, over 200 veterans of the Iraq war
participated in the Winter Soldier Hearings, organized by Iraq
Veterans Against the War.
The hearings consisted of veterans discussing their experiences
serving in occupied Iraq, atrocities they witnessed or participated
in, and their reasons for coming to oppose the continued occupation
of Iraq. The title of the hearings, taken from the Vietnam Winter
Soldier hearings of 1971, is meant to evoke a term by Thomas Paine,
who spoke of the Winter Soldiers who stand up for their country in
its darkest hour.
Rather than speak for the soldiers, I will let their experiences
testify to the need for an end to this terrible war. The Washington
Post quoted Cliff Hicks, a former 1st Armored Division soldier, who
said, referring to the American troops, that "these are not bad
people, not criminals and not monsters," but "people being put in
horrible situations, and they reacted horribly." The entire four-day
event was broadcast live from the IVAW Web site, allowing the public
to witness the soldiers speaking without the filter of a reporter's pen.
Camilio Mejia was convicted of desertion in 2004 and served a year in
jail, during which he was named a "prisoner of conscience" by the
human rights group Amnesty International. He is now the chair of the
board of directors of IVAW. Camilio had much to say regarding his
service in Iraq.
Having witnessed a fellow soldier pose for a photo with the dead body
of a woman, he said that "I could not conciliate the person who I had
served with." Trying to explain how American soldiers could mistreat
detainees, he noted that "it is almost impossible to act upon your
morality … when you have been fed all this information" about how
they are out to kill you. He said that soldiers were trained to
remove the humanity from them and "in doing so, you remove the
humanity from yourself." He said that the psyche "erases certain
memories that are too overwhelming to deal with," allowing soldiers
to erase the faces of their victims, along with mourning children and
families. Mejia detailed the mistreatment of detainees, which
included sleep deprivation, mock executions, verbal abuse and other
forms of humiliation.
Michael LeDuc, another testifying soldier, described elements of the
second invasion of Fallujah. Having been told that the rules of
engagement for this specific invasion were different than the general
occupation, soldiers were allowed to use "reconnaissance by fire."
Recon by fire allowed soldiers, if they felt unsafe, to do anything
to a house, including the use of rockets, mortars, tanks, bulldozers,
even calling in airstrikes, all with alarming prospects for civilian
residents. "We were going to be operating on the assumption that
everyone was hostile," he said.
Soldiers were told in briefings that if an individual is seen
fleeing, "assume that he is maneuvering against you and kill him."
The same response was encouraged toward individuals seen in
possession of weapons, binoculars and cell phones, rules of
engagement that seem to evoke the free fire zones of Vietnam.
Jeff Englehart emphasized the similarity between the current
occupation of Iraq and the U.S. invasion of Mexico and Vietnam. He
and a friend created a blog consisting of their Iraq experiences but
were told to stop by military authorities. Englehart stressed that
the best work of IVAW has been "soldier outreach," or talking to
soldiers and "letting them know they're not alone" in their
opposition to the war.
Another testifying soldier, Garret Repenhagen, emphasized the citizen
aspect of the soldiers serving in Iraq. As citizens, it should not be
considered unpatriotic for soldiers, even those currently serving, to
exercise their freedom of speech in criticism of the war. He went on
to contrast the contemporary military experience with that of
Vietnam. Without a draft, there are no parents and college students
worrying over conscription, and thus resistance to the war has been
less campus-based than during Vietnam. Furthermore, approximately
three-quarters of the war's veterans are still in the military, many
of whom are stuck through the stop-loss policy. This, in effect,
creates a military of professional, career soldiers, people who "take
pride in the fact that they are soldiers."
Even so, these soldiers "didn't ask to be sent to Iraq" but "wanted
to be used in a just way when all peaceful solutions have been
exhausted." Repenhagen stressed the fact that these soldiers consider
their profession a career -- they didn't want or endorse this war.
He suggested a number of reasons why more soldiers don't resist,
including loyalty to the military and their friends, unit cohesion
and the fear of leaving a military career.
The soldiers repeatedly emphasized the goals of IVAW, which are
threefold: an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all soldiers
and contractors from Iraq; full benefits for all returning soldiers,
regardless of discharge status; and reparations for the Iraqi people.
If anything is shared by the anti-war movement at large, it is these
three noble goals. Let's recognize the courage of these soldiers to
call for them.