April 18, 2006 was the date of my first confirmed kill. This man was innocent. I called him the fat man. He was walking back to his house and I shot him in front of his friend and his father. The first round didn’t kill him…he started screaming and looked right into my eyes, I looked at my friend and said, I can’t let that happen. So I took another shot and took him out.
—Jon Turner, Marine Corp veteran, testifier of Rules of Engagement panel
Jon Turner’s anecdote was just one example of the many horrific stories told by over one hundred members of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) at the group’s recent Winter Soldier event in DC. The hearings, which took place from March 13 to 16, were held to inform the public about what is really going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans talked candidly about widespread misconduct and systemic ills, pointing out that it was a popular misconception to think that only rogue elements were responsible for such acts.
The event was not open to the public. Its purpose was to allow media access into the inner world of soldiers on the front. The gathering was modeled after the Winter Soldier hearings of 1971, which were sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War; among the testifiers then was a young John Kerry, who was also one of the first Winter Soldier event’s key organizers. The Iraq and Afghanistan vets came off as courageous men and women offering insight into war that only a soldier can convey. Although many websites, blogs and foreign and independent media covered the event, the large US broadcast media outlets largely ignored it.
The crowded auditorium hung on to every word the veterans spoke as they described eyewitness accounts of their time served in the recent conflicts. They talked heartbreakingly of misjudgments that led to regrettable acts against Iraqis and Afghanis. Most were stoic, some shed tears, but many bore expressions of guilt. Yet after they spoke, one could see their relief in finally having a platform to tell the truth.
“When mistakes were made, we carried drop weapons,” said Jon Turner. The weapons, he said, would be planted at the dead bodies of civilians to cover up erroneous killings. He continued with a story about shooting an innocent man. “We were all congratulated after we had our first kills. My company commander personally congratulated me…This is the same individual who had stated that whoever gets their first kill by stabbing them to death will get a four-day pass when we return from Iraq.”
Ken Mills, a Marine Corps sergeant, said that “I was just as guilty as anyone else…I shot up buildings and animals and stuff…but in the back of my mind I knew it was wrong.” Mills recalled entering homes of Iraqi civilians and, if confronted with the slightest resistance, he would punish them by gathering all their belongings and setting them ablaze inside the house.
“What are we possibly gaining from doing this?” said Mills.
What became clear at these hearings was how the military’s Rules of Engagement had continuously changed as the war proceeded. This caused confusion among soldiers as to the appropriate level of force to use when confronting non-combatants. Some vets divulged that those in higher chains of command assured soldiers they would “cover their backs” if they strayed from the Rules. Others said such comments from the commanders were not only a wink and a nod to continue such abuses but became de facto policy.
Over the course of four days, the hearings covered a variety of issues. In a discussion of gender inequality, several female veterans discussed the high incidence of sexual harassment and rape cases in the service as well as the lack of response by military authorities. Tanya Austin, an Army veteran, noted cases where rape victims are blamed while their perpetrators go unpunished. “According to the Department of Defense’s own statistics, 74%-85% of soldiers convicted of rape or sexual assault leave the Military with an honorable discharge,” Austin said.
In terms of racial biases, Geoff Millard, Army National Guard, and the Washington DC chapter president of IVAW, stated that when serving in Iraq he heard various top commanders commonly refer to Iraqis as “Hajjis.” This racial slur was used on anyone who wasn’t American, he said. “These things start at the top not the bottom.”
The Winter Soldier event held all the ingredients of a powerful story, yet none of the big broadcast news networks in the US covered it. Although media outlets from many countries were there, American media corporations such as CBS, ABC, MSNBC, CNN and even PBS chose not to attend. Some said that the hearings were not fact-based and therefore conflicted with their journalistic principles—but the BBC and the Washington Post were there, and these outlets’ integrity has not been compromised.
As for politicians, only one member of Congress, Dennis Kucinich, attended the event. “The Winter Soldiers are in the finest tradition of our First Amendment,” Kucinich said. Given the gravity of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, one wonders why Hillary, Obama, and even Mr. Vet himself, John McCain, chose not to attend. At least John Kerry could have shown up.
Veterans felt rejected by the lack of media attention. Everyone talks about supporting the troops, but the implication is that they will be supported as long as they keep quiet. “Nobody’s here to promote their self interest,” said Vincent Emanuel, Marine Corps veteran. “I’m here because I feel the need to testify, the need to let Americans know what they’re not seeing on the news, that these are not isolated incidents—and that [these atrocities are] taking place in their name.”
Matthew Hennessy is a writer based in Brooklyn.