Winter Soldiers to Testify Against War
Thirty-seven years ago, in the midst of a bitter-cold Michigan winter, 109 Vietnam veterans gathered at a Howard Johnson Motel auditorium in Detroit to tell their stories. For three days, they told of ransacking undefended villages, attacking civilians, mutilating bodies, torturing Viet Cong suspects, burning houses, destroying Vietnamese property and livestock and killing innocent children. At the conference, entitled Winter Soldier, the veterans accepted responsibility and mourned for their actions. But, taken collectively, their words incriminated a much larger culprit: the war itself.
This year, from March 13 to 16, about 300 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, gathering for a second Winter Soldier conference, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) it will make up the largest gathering ever of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
Their mission? To tell the story of the war in the terms of those who have actually lived it.
"This is a moment when veterans won't let anyone else speak for us," said Aaron Hughes, an Iraq veteran who initiated the new Winter Soldier effort. "We hear from the pundits, we hear from the politicians, we hear from the generals, but we don't hear from the soldiers who've walked the streets, who've been there and know what it's about. We're the ones who can bring out the cruelties and dehumanization in US foreign policy."
The event, which will accommodate about 700 veteran advocates, social workers, support staff and members of the media in addition to veterans, will combine soldier testimonies and expert panels. The panels are intended to provide a factual context for the personal stories, according to Perry O'Brien, one of Winter Soldier's organizers. Panels and testimony will be grouped into 12 categories, including killing and wounding noncombatants, mishandling of dead, torture and abuse, sexual assault, discrimination in the military, destruction of civilian property, veterans' benefits issues and GI resistance.
Some testimonies will address acts of large-scale violence and human rights violations, while others will zero in on incidents that are often overlooked, such as racism toward Iraqis, sexual harassment of civilians and the military's waste and destruction of environmental resources.
O'Brien hopes that, through the medium of veterans' firsthand accounts, the public will gain new insight into the concrete abuses perpetuated by what may seem to be abstract foreign policy decisions.
"More than just telling stories, our goal is to show what's going on in both countries that is a result of US military policies," O'Brien said. "When we say, 'this is what we saw, this is what we were ordered to do,' patterns emerge. The patterns show that what the US is doing in Iraq is immoral and in many cases illegal."
IVAW has always turned to Vietnam veterans for mentorship and support, according to O'Brien, and the second Winter Soldier will echo its predecessor in its mission and basic themes. But this Winter Soldier's content will be, in many ways, very different. With digital recording technology at their disposal, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have been able to capture the war through a variety of media. Photos and video footage - in addition to stories and speeches - will make up a key part of the program.
New technologies also mean a wider reach for this Winter Soldier: the event will be broadcast in its entirety on satellite channels, and live streaming coverage will be available at IVAW's web site.
With a wider reach comes the possibility of backlash. The first Winter Soldier met with a groundswell of criticism, including accusations that the testimonies were untrue or deceitful. This time around, though, IVAW will leave little room for critics to attempt to invalidate their stories. A 20-member verification team, made up mostly of combat soldiers, is collecting and vetting all the testimony before it is presented. "Among the far right-wing fringe we'll be accused of being 'phony soldiers,' and there will probably be accusations of false testimony," O'Brien said. "But we're confident that the case we'll be making is very credible."
Jose Vasquez, an Army reservist who refused to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been working for months on the verification team. The meticulous process starts with interviews, basic background checks and questionnaires, then moves on to incident reports and photos. Vasquez speaks with other soldiers in each would-be testifier's unit, looking for corroboration. The team is also working with the National Lawyers Guild to put together Freedom of Information Act requests about operations in Iraq, and with Iraqi translators on the ground who can sometimes find civilians to corroborate accounts of particular events.
Vasquez holds that only testimonies that hold up to the most meticulous scrutiny will be presented.
"The ones we feel shaky about, we won't include in the public panel," he said.
The investigations behind the testimonies don't just lend the conference more credibility; Winter Soldier's organizers are determined to give their testifiers' words staying power. A compilation of their stories will be released in September or October, co-written by unembedded reporter Aaron Glantz, author of "How America Lost Iraq."
Also, according to Hughes, vets will come away from the conference with "truth in recruiting" materials, so they can more actively educate potential military recruits in their areas. Additionally, legal experts at the conference will give vets a more accurate sense of their own rights and the benefits they are entitled to, so they can better advocate for themselves.
Hughes sees the conference not as a stand-alone protest, but as a beginning.
"There's a whole tradition we're really trying to awaken, of US soldiers coming back from wars and resisting," he said. "We're trying to perpetuate that and make sure that when the government goes on military ventures for profit, the veterans are going to resist. We want to make sure it's a tradition that's being carried through."
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