Part two, notes from Winter Soldier on the Hill

“You’re telling us that what we’re doing there is bloodying our hands,” Representative Maxine Waters told members of Iraq Veterans Against the War halfway through Thursday’s hearing, also known as Winter Soldier on the Hill.

Waters added that much of the information she was hearing was new, and that it felt truer than all the administration’s happy-talk about Iraq, all the hopeful phrases meant to encapsulate this or that stage of the war. After ” shock and awe, last throes, clear and hold, the surge,” she said, “We have had enough.”

As I reported in part one, by then the handful of House members at the informal session had heard first-hand accounts of kicking in doors, shoot-first policies, abuse of detainees and other hazards of occupation. All had been laced with searing self-criticism on the soldiers’ part, as when Geoffrey Millard described soldiers’ racism and others said that many “did not have any intent of helping the Iraqis.” They had also heard Millard voice IVAW’s three demands: immediate withdrawal of troops, full health care for all troops upon return, and reparations to the Iraqi people for the spoliation of their country.

The veterans were also frank about their internal wounds. Many, like Kristofer Goldsmith, had attempted suicide; many, perhaps most, others had “self-medicated” with alcohol or drugs. Yet those same effects could make one ineligible for VA healthcare or the GI Bill, they noted, depending on branch of service or the language of your discharge. Kristofer Goldsmith, once a boy scout dreaming of becoming a soldier, said that his general discharge blocks him from education benefits; Millard, despite nine years of service, was ineligible because all of his service was with the National Guard. “We’ll fix that,” said Rep. Waters. “We have to.”

Perhaps appropriately for International Conscientious Objector Day, many spoke frankly of what they called the “dehumanization” inherent in current military training. Goldsmith described the perhaps immortal basic-training moment when the drill sergeant screams, “What makes the grass grow?” and expects to hear, “Blood, sergeant! Blood makes the grass grow!” As the link indicates. that phrase is already the title of a film about resisters from the first Gulf War. When I interviewed one star of that film, Aimee Allison, she described that chant as a turning point for her in 1991, which began her realization that she was a CO.

Another soldier on the panel  described watching a commander belittle someone undergoing that realization, using irrelevant hypothetical questions such as: What would you do if Al Qaeda went in and raped your wife, murdered your children, etc? The soldier looked up and asked why the commander would ask such a question: “Do we do that to them?”

After taking a break to vote on the war funding bill (with a surprising result, as it turned out, the committee began to ask the vets many questions— some personal, many policy-oriented.

Asked about the effects of the Abu Ghraib scandal on their work, the veterans were sober. “I was manning a checkpoint the day it broke,” said Adam Kokesh, and he wondered what it made him seem to the Iraqis meeting his eyes. James Gilligan said that detainee treatment overall has damaged any relationship possible with ordinary Iraqis: “ When you meet an Iraqi teenager on the street,” he said, “they know what their cousins, their uncles have been through” at the hands of the U.S. military. “That makes it hard.”

I confess I didn’t keep adequate notes on many of the policy discussions, especially when Woolsey and the others asked the vets to administration talking points, such as The surge is working, or We’re fighting Al Qaeda, or If we pull out now there will be chaos. To the last, Adam Kokesh said simply: ““Every specter we raise increases the longer we’re there,” meaning that each day of occupation increases terrorism and the prospect of a bloodbath.

Captain Luis Carlos Montalvan – whose testimony was the most blatant in blaming  specific generals, including the media rock star General David Petraeus, for much of the current chaos — was equally damning about “a misconception that staying in Iraq is vital to our national security interests…an assumption made time and time again by people at the highest echelons” that the occupation should continue “with no end state in sight.”

In any event, Montalvan said, while it may not be pretty, “my belief is that will force the hand of the sectarian forces to work things out on their own.”

Immediately after the hearing, active-duty Sergeant Mathis Chiroux publicly declared his refusal to deploy to Iraq, which event became the lede in most news stories about the day (including this terrific piece by my friend Karin at Agence-France Press). But to me, the real news came toward the end of the hearing itself, when Rep. Watson pledged to bring the veterans back to more formal House committees, such as Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security. There, she said, they would have an opportunity to testify under oath, something neither the 1971 Winter Soldiers or those testifying in March had done. “Are you willing to return,” she asked each in turn, and to bring documentation to support their testimonies?

Nothing, of course, was said about bringing the group before the Senate. I wonder if that will happen eventually — and whether the dissension among the Senate’s Vietnam veterans, limned so well in this week’s piece about John McCain‘s war, will be eased or intensified when they hear it.

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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