Anti-War Vets Testify for Hill Panel
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 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.”