Monday, March 17, 2008

Winter Soldier: First Thoughts

Three days of Winter Soldier was an awful lot to experience but I caught most of it on the web and am still pretty blown away by it. Way too many thoughts swirling around in my head to keep it all straight but the main message came through loud and clear: War Sucks. Especially if you are in the middle of it. War sucks for an Iraqi trying to make it home alive from a buying groceries. War sucks if you are a soldier just trying to live another day. Perhaps the most moving statement I heard was something like “all you want to do is stay alive and get home and nothing you do will get you out sooner.” Another veteran said that he would do whatever it takes so that “...I don’t have to stand in formation one more time and hear ‘Amazing Grace’ played on the bagpipes...” for yet another soldier.

I heard a lot of frustration and disappointment from the veterans, many of whom joined right out of high school to serve their country and earn their way to a better life. So many were young men and women who joined after 9-11 to protect America from further attack. Instead, they got the Iraq occupation that does not serve Iraq, America or the soldiers’s own honor. Time and again, I heard earnest young men and women who volunteered to serve only to see their service wasted and dishonored by the acts they carried out.

What struck me were the stories of soldiers’ own actions, the brutality and force used willfully and indiscriminately against civilians and civilian infrastructure. My own shocking realization that war is fought in someone’s home was clearly present in the stories. The amazing awareness that the “enemy” is no different from oneself is the one seed of hope in all of war’s devastation. That the seed is so slow to take root is a collective failure that makes me question human wisdom.

The session on race and gender was particularly telling. Unlike the previous day’s testimony, which focused largely on the Things That Happened in Iraq, this panel presented examples of what happens to individuals, particularly women and gays, in the military and how those events contribute to the dehumanization so necessary to war. One woman described the ultimate insult as calling someone a woman. “If my mother only knew that I would stand in formation and hear a drill sergeant yell at the man next to me ‘Does your P-word (sic) hurt? Do you need a tampon?’ If my mother only knew....” Several other women described how the chain of command tolerates sexual harassment. A Gay Marine who joined after 9-11 told about the impossibility of being anything but honest when sharing a foxhole with another Marine, each of whom depends on the other for his life.

Protesters outside of the event claimed the testimony to be slanderous lies and wholly unrepresentative of the American military. One demanded names, dates, places and events under oath before a tribunal. Only then would he accept the testimony as credible. Several veterans asked to be given the opportunity to testify under oath before Congress. And most did, in fact report on specific events in which they took part and often identified senior officers involved, some by name, others by position. The testimony was credible to me; it reflected my own experience in a similar environment and the typically mindless inertia of a large, hierarchic bureaucracy operating in a chaotic environment.

Some bloggers take exception to Winter Soldier, veterans offering alternative contexts for some of the testimony. A couple of dissenting blogs are here and here. For the most part, these critics, including some liveblogging from the scene, either attack the credibility of the individuals and testimony or dismiss the entire affair as a bunch of poseurs and Walter Mitty’s who just cant handle war. Like the protesters outside, these bloggers focus on specifics and individuals but ignore the broader context of death, destruction, dehumanization militarization. It’s up to those of us who believe that militarization and war are not acceptable policies in the 21st century to make our case, to nurture that seed of hope, in this corporate-military society.

Winter Soldier is an important step in that direction. The facts and stories are out there; I suspect we will hear many more. I plan to take that message to as many people as I can. Winter Soldier is also an important step toward personal reconciliation. These veterans are speaking out as patriots, redeeming their service from a government that has dishonored and wasted it; they are directing their dedication and experience to changing the military mindset that led America into an illegal war. They know they are responsible for their own actions under truly difficult conditions but they have also come to realize that their nation is equally responsible for putting them into that illegal war. They know, too, that their service will have meaning only to the extent that they use their experience to educate their nation.

Godspeed, ladies and gentlemen. I’m with you all the way.


My reward for spending all that time with Winter Soldier was an evening at the Olympia Symphony program, "War and Hope" featuring Beethoven's 4th Symphony and Hayden's Lord Nelson's Mass, the latter with four solo singers and an 89 member chorus. I thought the title appropriately ironic after the weekend's events but the music did indeed speak of war and hope. I'd not been to a symphony in a while and greatly enjoyed seeing all these musicians and singers working so intently and harmoniously to create such grand sounds.

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Blogger The Minstrel Boy said...

if the only reconisable benefit is to these soldiers themselves, it is worth it.

i've tried it all, shutting up and muddling through, talking it out, all to some or little effect.

now, i simply go with how the moment feels, then move on.

i applaud these guys for putting their personal testimony out there. i've always felt that the best way to end war is to show people what really happens.

they have my respect, and my support. they have my pipes and my harp when they die. . .

even though i'm no longer in arizona i've been told that "the skye boat song" is played when the casket is brought in or out.

i'll sing ye a song
of our land which is gone
onward the sailors cry

9:33 AM  
Blogger Jim Yeager said...

I don't understand how someone can question the integrity of anyone who's experienced war and is willing to speak plainly about their experiences. Is that person willing to fight in the same war the soldier did? If not, then maybe he ought to glance in a mirror before questioning anything...

6:01 AM  

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