Vet Group Seeks to Document What it Calls Systemic Abuses in Iraq and
By Spencer Ackerman
Iraq Veterans Against The War's effort to document what it considers
systemic abuses in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars took a major step
forward Thursday as five Iraq veterans related their firsthand
experiences to members of Congress.
Five members of the anti-war veterans group told a hearing of the
Congressional Progressive Caucus -- not an official House committee
but a group of the House's rising left-wing representatives -- about
underreported or manipulated statistics concerning U.S.-caused
civilian casualties, disproportionate fire and perceptions encouraged
by their commanders that Iraqis are "subhuman." Presenting the
results of months of inquiry into conditions in the two wars, Kelly
Dougherty, Geoffrey Millard, Kristofer Goldsmith, Scott Ewing and
Jason Lemieux were the first members of the Winter Soldier project to
testify before members of Congress. The last time any such
organization presented similar findings was in 1971, at the height of
the Vietnam War -- and the testimony Thursday was familiar to anyone
in attendance with memory of that earlier conflict.
"If these fucking Hajjis learned to drive, this shit wouldn't
happen," Millard quoted a superior officer, Col. William Rochelle, as
saying in 2005, in response to a briefing about a young soldier who
riddled an approaching car with bullets at a traffic control point
north of Baghdad. Millard, the co-chairman of Iraq Veterans Against
The War's Washington chapter, said that everywhere he went in Iraq,
senior officers, non-commissioned officers and enlisted soldiers and
Marines alike would refer to Iraqis using the derogatory term
"Hajjis," much like soldiers in Vietnam referred to the Vietnamese as "gooks."
In March, the veterans' organization put together a weekend-long
conference in which numerous veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan told
stories like Millard's. Soldiers and Marines accused their chains of
command of paying lip service to the stated rules of engagement while
encouraging discretion -- not internationally-recognized laws of war
-- to govern troop conduct. Yet at those hearings, held at the
National Labor College outside of Washington, few politicians and
journalists attended. The Washington Post ran its report on Winter
Soldier in its Metro section, not in the main news section.
This effort is self-consciously modeled on Vietnam Veterans Against
the War's 1971 Winter Soldier investigation into barbarity in
Vietnam. Both organizations took the title of their inquiries from
Thomas Paine's famous Revolutionary War-era pamphlet, "Crisis," which
inveighed against the "summer soldier and the sunshine patriot" who,
"in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country." The
Vietnam-era investigation reached a climax when a 27-year old sailor
named John Kerry, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, challenged Congress not to "ask a man to be the last man
to die for a mistake."
There was no John Kerry moment Thursday. Nor was there the gravitas
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But in January interviews,
members of Iraq Veterans Against The War expressed uncertainty over
whether Congress would take its often-incendiary charges seriously.
Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), Maxine
Waters (D-Calif.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), praised those
testifying as members of a new "greatest generation."
Lemieux, a Marine sergeant who served three Iraq tours from 2003 to
2006, spoke of deliberate falsification of statistics during his
service in Anbar Province. Investigating a 2006 incident in which
Marines returned fire in a town called Tamim, Lemieux said he found
that only four rounds of "poorly aimed enemy fire" resulted in
thousands of rounds of artillery, machine gun and grenade fire into
"an area of Tamim known to be owned and occupied by local civilians."
But when he showed a report of his investigation to the executive
officer of one of the Marine companies involved, Lemieux said the
officer fretted that he couldn't show such a disproportionate
response to the battalion commander. Lemieux said the officer
falsified the report, to show the Marines were in far greater danger.
He said the soldier told him, "Lemieux, I think your views on this
war are affecting your reports."
Even the war's success stories came under challenge in the hearing.
Ewing was an Army scout who served with the 3rd Armored Combat
Brigade in the northern town of Tall Afar from 2005 to 2006. Under
the command of Col. H.R. McMaster -- who this week was promoted to
brigadier general -- Tall Afar was briefly pacified through use of
counterinsurgency tactics. Yet Ewing, while praising McMaster,
testified that the nature of the occupation required a provocative brutality.
Ewing told a story about coming upon middle-aged Iraqi women "covered
in blood" after an Apache attack helicopter opened fire on their
front lawn. While his fellow soldiers attempted to apply battlefield
medicine, some were badly wounded. He gave no indication that the
women had done anything wrong. "Anytime a suicide bomber kills
civilians it is highly publicized," Ewing said. "But from my personal
experience in Tall Afar, the number of Iraqis killed or injured by
our forces far outnumbered those killed by insurgents or suicide bombers."
The hearing's emotional crescendo was the testimony of Goldsmith. " I
joined the Army to kill Iraqis, to kill Muslims," Goldsmith said,
before apologizing. When he finally went to Baghdad in 2005, he found
the Iraqis had greater sympathy to the Mahdi Army militia of Moqtada
Sadr than the U.S.-backed government. "They feel they have been let
down by America and by their own government that George Bush's
administration put in power," he said.
His voice occasionally wavering, Goldsmith confessed that he
attempted suicide after returning home. "I never deployed a second
time. Because of that I received a general discharge," he said. "I
lost my college benefits, the $40,000 promised me in the Montgomery
GI Bill I will not be eligible to receive. And currently there is a
senator in Congress -- excuse me, currently running for president --
who is fighting to kill our Webb GI bill. And I'm one of the soldiers
who will never get that money."
Barbara Lee promised Goldsmith, "You will go to college," as she
vowed to pass Sen. Jim Webb's new GI Bill.
It is unclear what impact Thursday's hearings will have. President
George W. Bush, traveling in Israel, said those who advocate
withdrawal from Iraq are akin to the appeasers of the Nazis. However,
in a surprise unrelated to Thursday's Winter Soldier testimony,
Republican defections allowed House Democrats to defeat an additional
$160 billion in war funding.
Dougherty, an Army veteran of Iraq, reminded Congress of the wages of
that funding in her testimony. "Every day that the occupation
continues, more men, women and children will be killed, maimed and
forced to flee their country as refugees," Dougherty said. "More
veterans will return home with lifelong scars, emotional and physical."