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Iraq Veterans To Testify at Their Own ‘Winter Soldier’

On three frigid days in early 1971, more than 100 Vietnam veterans gathered at a Detroit hotel to indict the most contentious American war of the 20th century. In measured tones, occasionally quivering with emotion, they described what the war had done to them as much as what the war had done to the country. The veterans talked about abuses made routine, like throwing prisoners out of helicopters, torturing Viet Cong detainees or mutilating enemy corpses. Many had never told their stories before. Sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, they called their investigation the Winter Soldier project, after a line from Thomas Paine’s famous denunciation of “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot [who] will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country.”

Vietnam, by 1971, was the most domestically divisive U.S. conflict since the Civil War. Yet the public displayed little desire to hear from those who prosecuted the war about what was done in its name. What little press coverage Winter Soldier received was largely hostile. A short, un-bylined New York Times story portrayed “young veterans of the Vietnam war quietly [telling] of their ‘war crimes.’”

But while the investigation itself may have made little immediate impact, its disclosures would reverberate for decades. “We learned the meaning of free fire zones, shooting anything that moves, and we watched while America placed a cheapness on the lives of orientals,” a 27-year old Navy veteran, John Kerry, told the Senate about what Winter Soldier uncovered. The bitterness that testimony sowed in other Vietnam veterans, who felt betrayed by Winter Soldier, stayed alive through 2004, when the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth falsely maligned Kerry’s service record as payback. Now, with another intractable conflict proving to be another defining moment in American history, some veterans of the Iraq war intend to take up the Winter Soldier banner. On March 13, Iraq Veterans Against the War, an organization inspired by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, will convene at the National Labor College just outside of Washington to say, in so many words, that it’s all happening again.

“What’s happening now is no different than over the past five years,” said Geoff Millard, 27, the president of the group’s Washington chapter. “It’s the result of systematic problems in the way we fight an occupation. It’s not that we’re going to outline these huge atrocities. It’s how the systematic nature of occupation is oppression.” This time around, Winter Soldier will have what its predecessor didn’t: digital video to back up the charges.

The critique that the Winter Soldier investigation presents is both subtle and incendiary. Throughout the course of the war, the public has become agonizingly familiar with its excesses, most notably the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the deliberate killing of civilians at Haditha. Winter Soldier, according to the veterans’ group, won’t expose the next big Iraq scandal. What it will do instead is argue, through testimony from soldiers and Marines who fought the war, that standard military behavior in Iraq can look more like Abu Ghraib or Haditha than the public perceives.

“I do believe that the profession of soldiering is fundamentally an honorable one,” said Perry O’Brien, 25, an Afghanistan veteran and key leader of Winter Soldier. “But the disconnect between the [soldiers’] code and what soldiers are asked to do in the war is the source of a tremendous amount of guilt that many of us carry around. Kids grow up wanting to be GI Joe and save lives. But military policy is dictating that people do terrible things, things that violate their conscience, and then have the psychological burden of carrying that around, because the military says you can’t talk about it. Soldiers live with it and die with it.”

Organizers estimate that perhaps 45 to 55 Iraq veterans, and some from Afghanistan, will testify to such “terrible things” at Winter Soldier. Liam Madden, 23, a Marine veteran of Iraq who’s now a student at Northeastern University, came up with the idea for a second Winter Soldier in late 2006 with his fellow IVAW members Aaron Hughes in Chicago and Fernando Braga in New York. “The people I’ve talked to who are testifying are going to talk about their experiences in Iraq, how they’re put in positions to harm the people of Iraq and harm the image of America because of the position they’re put in, and the complete injustice involved in that,” Madden said. “Other people will talk about how a run-of-the-mill day in Iraq is. It adds up to a checkpoint here, a house raid there, a house raid there, a house raid there, to a population of Iraqis who can’t tolerate you any longer.”

The project’s interview and verification committees are just getting started. But glimpses of the expected testimony are beginning to emerge. One of the early interviewees, a medic, told IVAW about treating a two-year old shot in the thigh by U.S. soldiers, and witnessing “the mutilation of the dead,” according to Jose Vasquez, 33, a former Army sergeant who heads Winter Soldier’s verification team. The public should expect to hear about “unnecessary killing of noncombatants on the battlefield,” said Vasquez, an anthropology graduate student at the City University of New York. (Vasquez himself filed as a conscientious objector after finding himself unable to participate in the Iraq war.) Indeed, a frequent theme among group members in interviews has been the intensity of manning checkpoints, where Iraqi civilians can die for simply not approaching a checkpoint slowly enough to reassure an apprehensive soldier who doesn’t speak their language.

Yet the organizers of Winter Soldier will consider the event a failure if it appears to blame soldiers and Marines for the war. “Imagine you’re out on a convoy and you get hit by an IED,” Millard said. “And the SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] is you fire in that direction of that fire that came in. That’s indiscriminate. Civilians get killed in that. It’s not the soldier’s fault. It’s not the civilian’s fault. It’s the occupation’s fault.” Millard, a recently-discharged Army National Guardsman from upstate New York, served in Iraq as a general’s assistant in Tikrit from October 2004 to October 2005. His job involved briefing senior officers on daily violent incidents and it led Millard to renounce the war as beneath the dignity of his comrades. “The common U.S. soldier is not a bloodthirsty animal,” he said. “The problem is the occupation of Iraq itself.”

For Pete Hegseth, 27, the executive director of the pro-war Vets For Freedom, the distinction that Mallard’s group seeks to draw is untenable. Hegseth served with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006 in Baghdad and Samarra. Winter Soldier, to him,will treat the honor of U.S. service personnel as collateral damage in the organization’s attempt to stop the war. “I’d ask, ‘Is what you saw U.S. policy, or is it an unfortunate occurrence?’ Let’s be real here,” Hegseth said. “Did your company commander tell you to shoot women and children, or to maximize casualties? No! We don’t do that. To talk about systematic brutality is essentially indicting the military as being complicit in war crimes.”

Worse, Hegseth feared, will be the impact Winter Soldier has on U.S. troops currently in Iraq. “They’re making a concerted effort to make claims about atrocities,” he said. “We live in a satellite world, where information is disseminated immediately. We’re connected. Every single mud hut, home or apartment in Iraq has a satellite dish, and they hear what goes on in our country. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know it would be something that people who don’t like us in Iraq beam around the Muslim world. It could be turned against the troops on the battlefield.”

Hegseth said he didn’t want to overstate his case, but the investigation could have real consequences. “What I’m not going to do is say because they do this there’ll be more attacks, but I don’t think it would do anything to improve sentiment toward the American soldier on a foreign battlefield.”

Millard doesn’t dismiss Hegseth out of hand. “I would totally agree that there aren’t first sergeants who get up—and if there are, they’re extremely rare—that would ever get up and say, ‘We’re gonna kill women and children today.’ No!” Millard said. “But why do women and children get killed? Because of the systemic problems within the occupation, which is why we want to bring the occupation to an end.” He’s less sanguine about the idea that Winter Soldier will get U.S. troops killed. “You know what endangers our soldiers? Having them in Iraq,” he said. “I’m pretty sure no soldiers are going to die at Winter Soldier. I’m not a fortune teller, but I’m pretty damn sure we’re not gonna kill any U.S. soldiers. But I’m pretty sure on that date, U.S. soldiers are gonna get killed in Iraq.”

Another telegraphed critique is that Winter Soldier’s presenters will lie about their service. It’s a reprise of a long and bitter controversy surrounding the first Winter Soldier. In a 2004 National Review cover story, Mac Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and a Vietnam veteran, called the investigation “a lie.” More recently, Rush Limbaugh referred to antiwar veterans as “phony soldiers.” That’s something Iraq Veterans Against the War has already faced. Last year, Jesse Adam Macbeth, 23, lied about killing civilians in Iraq in a video that appeared on YouTube and referred viewers to Iraq Veteran’s Against the War’s website.

That’s where Vasquez’s verification process comes in. First, the group will keep on file in its Philadelphia national office a copy of each testifier’s military service record, known as a DD-214 form. After interviewing the potential testifier, Vasquez’s committee—made up of a team of twelve veterans around the country—will reach out to members of his or her unit for corroboration. A network of journalists currently in Iraq will reach out to Iraqi civilians in the relevant cities and towns for independent eyewitness accounts. Finally, IVAW will file Freedom of Information Act requests with the Pentagon for relevant corroborating or refuting information, assisted by a task force of the National Lawyers Guild to expedite the process. “We’re laying our credibility on the line,” Vasquez acknowledged.

And while media coverage of Winter Soldier may not be any more attentive or sympathetic than in 1971, this time there are some technological work-arounds. Iraq Veterans Against the War plans to host live streaming video of the conference on its website, where archived footage of direct testimony will remain. What’s more, during the testimony itself, Winter Soldier will have an advantage that its Vietnam-era predecessor didn’t: digital video. Practically every soldier in Iraq packed a camera or a video recorder or a camera-enabled phone, and several are bringing what they recorded to Winter Soldier. It will be much harder to ignore testimony backed by video—especially if those videos go viral on YouTube. “We’re already starting to receive a fair amount of footage and photographs corroborating these stories,” O’Brien said. “It will be very different for the right wing to say we’re lying [at the second Winter Soldier investigation]. These photographs exist.”

The attacks on their credibility may be guaranteed, but the group draws strength from a sense of veterans’ espirit d’corps . Its DC office, in the working-class northwest Washington neighborhood of Petworth, is a brown brick rowhouse that doubles as Millard’s home. The study, kept polished and immaculate, resembles a Tactical Operations Center, with humming computers topping neat rows of desks. Downstairs are air mattresses and bedding for vets in need of a place to crash, weights and a punching bag for their workouts, and nearly every Nirvana CD to aid their catharsis.

Millard, like many soldiers, switches from intensity to self-depricating humor in the same sentence. His tattoos, peeking out from his black IVAW hoodie, mark him as the punk rock kid he was growing up in Buffalo, N.Y. And the unity that the hardcore scene preaches is evident in his attitude toward his fellow veterans, no matter their politics. Vets for Freedom, he says, should tell their own service stories. “I think the American public should hear their experiences as well, not just IVAW. We’re the ones just happening to take the initiative to tell the American people, because we feel they don’t get these stories,” he said. “I think the American people need to hear the experience of not just us but all veterans, from veterans themselves.” As Millard spoke, an Iraq vet, who had arrived unannounced on his doorstep at four that morning, was upstairs napping.

For Iraq Veterans Against the War, there is more at stake than just its reputation, veterans’ dignity, or ending the war. On the table at Winter Soldier, as they see it, is the transformation of both military culture and the relationship of veterans to American democracy. “We joined this incredibly honorable profession, driven by this code of honor, yet what we do needs to remain hidden,” O’Brien said. “It’s a necessary evil, supposedly, that needs to be hidden from the rest of America,” he continued. “Winter Soldier One was a direct confrontation with this idea that what soldiers do needs to remain hidden. It established a tradition – it happened once, with Winter Soldier [in 1971], and if it happens again, it’s a tradition. Obviously, none of us want future wars. But if they happen, we need to have soldiers come back and tell their stories.”

Image from “Winter Soldier, The Film” courtesy of Millarium Zero

Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Geoff Millard’s hometown as Troy, NY and listed him as the Washington chapter co-chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Millard is from Buffalo, NY, and is the president of the Washington chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The Washington Independent regrets the errors.

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