US: Vets Break Silence on War Crimes
By Aaron Glantz
SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 28 (IPS) - U.S. veterans of the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan are planning to descend on Washington from
Mar. 13-16 to testify about war crimes they committed or
personally witnessed in those countries.
"The war in Iraq is not covered to its potential because of how
dangerous it is for reporters to cover it," said Liam Madden, a
former Marine and member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the
War. "That's left a lot of misconceptions in the minds of the
American public about what the true nature of military
occupation looks like."
Iraq Veterans Against the War argues that well-publicised
incidents of U.S. brutality like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal
and the massacre of an entire family of Iraqis in the town of
Haditha are not the isolated incidents perpetrated by "a few bad
apples", as many politicians and military leaders have claimed.
They are part of a pattern, the group says, of "an increasingly
"The problem that we face in Iraq is that policymakers in
leadership have set a precedent of lawlessness where we don't
abide by the rule of law, we don't respect international
treaties, so when that atmosphere exists it lends itself to
criminal activity," argues former U.S. Army Sergeant Logan
Laituri, who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before
being discharged as a conscientious objector.
Laituri told IPS that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt
in the rules of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers
on the front lines. When he was stationed in Samarra, for
example, he said one of his fellow soldiers shot an unarmed man
while he walked down the street.
"The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime as
you might call it because the rules of engagement were very
clear that no one was supposed to be walking down the street,"
he said. "But I have a problem with that. You can't tell a
family to leave everything they know so you can bomb the shit
out of their house or their city. So while he definitely has
protection under the law, I don't think that legitimates that
type of violence."
Iraq Veterans Against the War is calling the gathering "Winter
Soldier," after a quote from the U.S. revolutionary Thomas
Paine, who wrote in 1776: "These are the times that try men's
souls. The summer soldier and 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."
Organisers say video and photographic evidence will also be
presented, and the testimony and panels will be broadcast live
on Satellite TV and streaming video on ivaw.org.
Winter Soldier is modeled on a similar event held by Vietnam
Veterans 37 years ago.
In 1971, over 100 members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War
gathered in Detroit to share their stories with fellow citizens.
Atrocities like the My Lai massacre had ignited popular
opposition to the war, but political and military leaders
insisted that such crimes were isolated exceptions.
"Initially even the My Lai massacre was denied," notes Gerald
Nicosia, whose book "Home to War" provides the most exhaustive
history of the Vietnam veterans' movement.
"The U.S. military has traditionally denied these accusations
based on the fact that 'this is a crazy soldier' or 'this is a
malcontent' -- that you can't trust this person. And that is the
reason that Vietnam Veterans Against the War did this unified
presentation in Detriot in 1971."
"They brought together their bona fides and wore their medals
and showed it was more than one or two or three malcontents. It
was medal-winning, honored soldiers -- veterans in a group
verifying what each other said to try to convince people that
these charges cannot be denied. That people are doing these
things as a matter of policy."
Nicosia says the 1971 Winter Soldier was roundly ignored by the
mainstream media, but that it made an indelible imprint on those
who were there.
Among those in attendance was 27-year-old Navy Lieutenant John
Kerry, who had served on a Swift Boat in Vietnam. Three months
after the hearings, Nicosia notes, Kerry took his case to
Congress and spoke before a jammed Senate Foreign Relations
Committee. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans
packed the seats.
"Many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes
committed in Southeast Asia," Kerry told the committee,
describing the events of the Winter Soldier gathering.
"It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in
Detroit -- the emotions in the room, and the feelings of the men
who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam. They relived the
absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do."
In one of the most famous antiwar speeches of the era, Kerry
concluded: "Someone has to die so that President Nixon won't be
-- and these are his words -- 'the first president to lose a
war'. We are asking Americans to think about that, because 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?"
Nicosia says U.S. citizens and veterans find themselves in a
similar situation today.
"The majority of the American people are very dissatisfied with
the Iraq war now and would be happy to get out of it. But
Americans are bred deep into their psyches to think of America
as a good country and, I think, much harder than just the hurdle
of getting troops out of Iraq is to get Americans to realise the
terrible things we do in the name of the United States."
*Aaron Glantz has reported extensively from Iraq and on the
treatment of U.S. soldiers when they return home. He is editor
of the website www.warcomeshome.org and will be co-hosting
Pacifica Radio's live broadcast of the Winter Soldier hearings
from Mar. 14-16.
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