Sunday, March 23, 2008

Winter Soldier

In 1776, Thomas Paine, referring to the numerous desertions from the Continental Army encamped at Valley Forge that winter, wrote the famous words:
"These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

In January 1971, the antiwar veterans group Vietnam Veterans Against War organized several days of hearings in Detroit and asked combat veterans of that war to come forward and talk about the horrible things they had seen and done in Vietnam. The event was called Winter Soldier. The intent was to demonstrate to the American people that events such as the then recently uncovered My Lai massacre were not isolated events, but part of a larger, predictable pattern resulting from U.S. policy and orders from the top. The men talked of prisoners being thrown from helicopters, ears and heads being taken as trophies and wanton and indiscriminate slaughter committed against civilians -- behavior that was not just tacitly condoned, but often encouraged by their commanders. It was this event that led to the Fulbright Senate Committee hearings on the war in April 1971, at which John Kerry, then fresh out of the Navy and active as a leader of the antiwar movement, famously asked "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

About ten days ago (things are slow getting to us on the other side of the Pacific at times, and at other times we are slow to get to things) the Iraq Veterans Against the War organized new Winter Soldier hearings.

You likely didn't see anything about it on MSNBC or CNN and certainly not on FOX -- the talking heads were all too busy discussing whether Barack Obama's speech on race had made white people feel icky--but Amy Goodman from Democracy Now did several days worth of programs on the event, mostly just playing tapes of the testimony offered. KPFA radio also offers an excellent series on the event. Sadly, five years after the start of the Iraq war, most people have been distracted by other shiny objects, like whether Hillary is macho enough or whether Obama is black enough/too black-- last week the Iraq war got just 4 percent of the newshole in the US media.

The stories from the latest Winter Soldier are not as harrowing as those from Vietnam in their details - there are no ears taken or captives thrown from helicopters - but several themes recur, notably the dehumanization, as a matter of policy, of anyone not wearing the uniform of the United States armed forces. In Vietnam the enemy was "Charlie" and the civilians were "gooks" who could be shot for sport. In Iraq, the local population are all "Hajis" who can be shot for the simple crime of "not knowing how to drive" on the roads of their own cities.

But on a day in the early summer of 2005 in the area of operation of the 42nd Infantry Division, there was a traffic control point shooting. Traffic control point shootings are rather common in Iraq; they happen on a near or daily basis. What happened was, a vehicle was driving very quickly towards a traffic control point. A young machine gunner made the split-second decision that that vehicle was a threat, and in less than a minute put 200 rounds from his .50-caliber machinegun into that vehicle. That day, he killed a mother, a father and two children. The boy was age four, and the daughter was age three.

I was in the briefing that evening when it was briefed to the general. And after the officer in charge briefed it to the general in a very calm manner, Colonel Rochelle of the 42nd Infantry Division, DISCOM Commander, turned in his chair to the entire division-level staff, and he said—and I quote—“If these [expletive] hajis learned to drive, this [expletive] wouldn’t happen."

Others testify of being told to shoot anyone talking on a cell phone within sight of a convoy, to fire on any taxis seen on the roads after a rumor that they were being used by insurgents for transportation, of being encouraged to carry throw-down weapons so that they could justify the shootings of civilians. The most moving testimony was from the mother and father of Jeff Lucey, a 24 year old marine who killed himself less than a year after coming back from driving a truck in Iraq. He suffered severe PTSD but could not get treatment through the military or the Veteran's Administration Hospital, even though his family begged to have him committed on couple of occasions. So much for supporting the troops, I guess.

videos of the Luceys' testimony

There are those who dispute the veracity of the original Winter Soldier testimonies, but they are mainly Nixon enthusiasts and lying political operatives like the widely discredited Swift Boat Veterans For Truth who tried to smear John Kerry. Then there are willfully ignorant twits like this one, who's convinced that the culture war veterans like Michelle Malkin know more about what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and what happened in Vietnam than the people who were actually there. What do they and White House tenants have to say to the Luceys and tens of thousands like them?

4000 US soldiers have died, about 30,000 have suffered physical wounds and it is estimated that as many as one in four of the hundreds of thousands who have returned suffer from PTSD.
No one knows how many Iraqis have died, but estimates run from about 90,000 to more than 650,000 (as of 2006), Multiply that by who know how much for the number of wounded. The entire population may be considered to have PTSD by now, but there is nothing "post" about their trauma - it is ongoing.

(crossposted from the Woodshed, where I will do my best to cheer you up)

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