Maya Schenwar, truthout.org, March 19, 2008
Washington - Today marks the fifth anniversary of the day President Bush announced from the Oval Office the "opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign" to invade Iraq. On that day, he invested the military with a great and grave responsibility.
"To all the men and women of the United States Armed Forces now in the Middle East, the peace of a troubled world and the hopes of an oppressed people now depend on you," Bush said. "That trust is well placed."
Five years later, more than 200 of those men and women joined last week in Silver Spring, Maryland, to reject that trust, to speak out against that mission and to invest their government with the responsibility to end it. During the Winter Soldier testimonies, they told their own stories of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the realities of life on the ground, not of the Oval Office. They told of the killing of civilians, the destruction of houses and farms, the mishandling of war dead, the use of illegal weapons, the dehumanization of the "enemy" and the pain that war has etched onto their own lives.
Over the course of four days, from March 13 to 16, they testified against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They found them guilty.
"We were not bad people," testified Cliff Hicks, a 23-year-old Iraq veteran, expressing the sentiment of many of his peers, who spoke of wrestling with guilt, shame and fear. "We were all good people in a bad situation, and we did what we had to do to get through."
The event was in some ways a revival of the first Winter Soldier, in 1971, in which more than a hundred Vietnam veterans gathered to mourn their own acts of violence and speak out against the war that perpetuated them.
Last week's Winter Soldier comprised the largest-ever gathering of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Like the Vietnam-era veterans, their aim is larger than the sum of their personal testimonies. They hope to play an integral role in ending the occupation, according to Kelly Dougherty, executive director of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), the organization behind the event.
"Though we may get down at times, we should be proud that we're standing up and moving forward," Dougherty said, introducing Winter Soldier's first panel. "As we enter the sixth year of this occupation, the voices of veterans and service members, as well as civilians on the ground, need to be heard by the American people, and by the people of the world, and by other veterans so they can find their voice to tell their story."
The winter soldiers' testimonies spanned a broad range. Some confronted the killing of civilians and other actual violations of the Geneva conventions, while others detailed incidents that are often overlooked, like racism toward Iraqis, gender discrimination within the military and the waste and destruction of environmental resources.
The panels of testifying veterans were often backed up by slides and video: a screaming mother watching her house being ransacked, a mosque minaret shattering under repeated gunfire from soldiers "tak[ing] out aggression," a bomb hitting a government building - their firsthand, uncensored footage of life at war.
Speaking from the Oval Office on that March day five years ago, Bush predicted a clearly defined, broadly honorable relationship with Iraqis.
"The enemies you confront will come to know your skill and bravery," Bush said. "The people you liberate will witness the honorable and decent spirit of the American military. I want Americans and all the world to know that coalition forces will make every effort to spare innocent civilians from harm."
Winter Soldier aimed to break down that fiction of do-no-evil military nobility, according to Perry O'Brien, one of its lead organizers, who served as an Army medic in Afghanistan.
The problem, O'Brien told Truthout, is the "mythology of the bad apple as war criminal, instead of the war itself as criminal." After incidents like those in Haditha, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib, Americans generally assumed they were caused by individual "bad soldiers."
"The average soldier on the ground understands that this is much more widespread," O'Brien said. "It's the reality of occupation."
Aaron Hughes, an Iraq veteran who initiated the Winter Soldier effort, adds "democracy" - a key part of Bush's stated mission in Iraq - to "honor" and "decency" on the list of amorphous concepts that eschew the brutal reality of life on the ground.
"When the military's talking about the heroic nature it embodies, we want to make sure that people know that what the military's for is to kill people," Hughes told Truthout. "You don't learn about democracy in basic training, you learn how to kill people."
Those kinds of "lessons" can take a toll on one's health. In addition to disclosing civilian killings and shattered villages, Winter Soldier revealed the internal battle soldiers continue to fight after returning home. A panel focused on the "crisis in veterans' health care" showed a large-scale deficiency in the Department of Veterans' Affairs' (VA's) treatment and diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Accordingly, the conference offered resources for vets' psychological needs: Mental health professionals were available on site, along with massage therapists, acupuncture, yoga and information about how to make the most of the VA's resources.
But one of the most important modes of psychological healing available at Winter Soldier, according to O'Brien, was the simple presence of the other testifiers. Before and after their testimony, veterans pre-briefed and debriefed for at least an hour, working through the emotions tangled up inside their stories. Over the course of the four days, vets worked to solidify their bond with each other - a key tool for both psychological support and political action.
"We're a community, a family," O'Brien said. "The camaraderie, the brotherhood and sisterhood that we felt when we were serving certainly carried over into our activism. There's a sense of shared experience around that community that's really powerful and has helped us have the courage to come forward and tell our stories."
The winter soldiers' voices, organizers hope, will continue to echo in the weeks, months and years beyond last weekend in Silver Spring. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who attended the conference on Friday, plans to enter their testimony into the Congressional Record.
In the coming weeks, Truthout will bring you in-depth video and written coverage of the issues raised in testimony at Winter Soldier.
Maya Schenwar is a reporter for Truthout.org.
Matt Renner is a reporter for Truthout.org.