Northwest Winter Soldier in Seattle offered a compelling look at the brutality of war this past weekend. Nine Iraq Veterans, a military wife, a military mother and a psychiatrist reported to the public what war does to human beings at each end of the rifle and to their families. None of the stories were shockingly new, just the latest incarnation of the loss of humanity that makes war possible and certainly nothing that any combat veteran doesn’t already know. What is most disappointing is that, knowing this from Vietnam, we have allowed war to be once again be waged in our name.
The scene at Town Hall was serious, purposeful and enthusiastic. People streaming in from all directions, carting boxes and displays. The lobby was filled with tables offering information, literature, t-shirts and trinkets. A petition signature seeker for the Washington Death With Dignity initiative was in the crowd as was one for a Seattle initiative to divest city assets away from the war economy. The venue was first rate. Town Hall is a former church with a domed auditorium, and rows of curved pews radiating from the stage and large patterned stained glass installations on either side. Spacious with good acoustics.
The nine veterans told stories that were not unfamiliar. What was especially familiar was the indifference to human life that is a matter of course in war, the hardening of the human spirit necessary to inflict lethal violence on another and the recurring questions of “why?” and “how did I become that monster?” that haunt all veterans. A combat engineer described threatening young children with M-16's. A military journalist on patrol had his rifle sighted on a young girl, knowing that he might well have pulled the trigger had she not quickly ducked out of view. Others told tumultuous raids on Iraqi homes that often resulted in removing the family breadwinners into unknown detention. “People in Iraq don’t have the luxury of sleeping secure at night, one veteran testified.” An Army nurse used the term “range balls” (ie, low value golf balls used on a driving range that no one cares about losing) to describe Iraqi casualties that came into his hospital. I heard the veterans expressing the same understanding of their mission that I learned in Vietnam, that the war is taking place in someone’s home and how much it would suck to have that happen in your own home and wouldn’t you hate the foreign occupier? The sense of sacrificing for nothing was palpable in all the stories. So, too, was the sense of disappointed patriotism that I heard at the four day Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan
in Silver Spring, Maryland this spring.
The non-veterans offered testimony that was equally searing. A military wife described the difficulties of maintaining a relationship with the different person her husband became during deployment, the problems of domestic abuse and miscarriages among military families. The mother of a young woman recounted her daughter’s sexual harassment during deployment and how a dedicated, enthusiastic soldier went AWOL rather than return to Iraq with the harasser and the organization that did nothing to protect her from her superior.
The psychiatrist provided a sobering look at the long-term effects, most of which were not even considered in the initial decision to go to war (not that consideration would have don any good, the few considerations actually raised, such as the number of troops or a potential $200 billion cost, were quickly dismissed). The high rate of casualties to dead (about 8 to 1) will leave a legacy of severely wrecked bodies and minds (sanitarilly termed “polytrauma), limited prospects and hardship for survivors and their families. His statistics were chilling. Combat exposure is a factor in nine percent of unemployment cases, eight percent of divorces and 21 percent of domestic abuse. Combat veterans are twice as likely as non-combat veterans to commit suicide. The active duty suicide rate is the highest since tracking was initiated 30 years ago.
I missed the second panel because I was phoning into About Face
with interviews during our live broadcast that afternoon. Representatives from the International Longshoremen’s Union who discussed labor solidarity with anti-war efforts and the May Day work stoppage at west coast ports in protest against the war. Antonia Juhasz
, author of the forthcoming The Tyranny of Oil
and The Bush Agenda
A third panel focused on the future of GI resistance and other anti-war activism. Speakers included a representative for Soldier Say No, a veteran and retired Colonel Ann Wright
. Col. Wright reminded that the audience that “responsible and respectable” citizens don’t complain when their governments go astray; “irresponsible” citizens object to illegal war. She urged us all to be more “irresponsible”. Perhaps the most meaningful comment came from former Sergeant Seth Mandel who reminded the audience that ending the Iraqi occupation is only one step. Changing the corporate-military is also essential; if not, we will be complicit in the next war that will inevitably occur.
Despite its seriousness and grim stories, the event had festive moments as well. Town Hall was mostly filled to its 800 seat capacity with a supportive audience. During the first panel, one member asked all the veterans present to stand and be acknowledged for supporting IVAW. The applause was personally gratifying. At the end of the panel, all veterans were asked to join the panelists on stage, maybe 100 in all. I helped an elderly World War II vet up the stairs to the stage and was proud to be part of that formation.
After the last panel, we took to the streets of Seattle, complete with police escort, on a busy Saturday afternoon. Our route took us through the heart of downtown and past the Pike Place Market during a festival and on to a public square on Fourth Avenue where he made lots of noise, networked and felt good about the afternoon’s events, even as we knew that we’re making a hard sale despite America’s frustration with the war.
The event got some local media coverage. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
ran a summary, “Veterans share their stories, urge end to war in Iraq”
, of the first panel online Saturday afternoon that attracted about 70 comments in a mostly inane and pointless argument back and forth; a few comments actually made sense but chaff and ad hominem attacks were much more common. The same story ran later under the headline, “Vets intentions were shattered in wartime horrors”
, which I think misses the point entirely. So far, the comment thread is more relevant and to the point but that may change once the trolls get their hand in. Or maybe they are satisfied with their first assault.
Much of the first round of comments challenged these veterans’ credibility and that of the original Winter Soldier Investigation
in 1971. They were rebutted. Perhaps the best comment came from “atetvet” who wrote in response to one critic of the soldiers:
The young men (and women if there were any who spoke, the article doesn't say) are not political. They are speaking from a personal point of view, one that you, frankly, do not understand. There's is not an attempt to embarrass a president or defeat a policy so much as to say, "This happened to me, and it is still happening to my fellow soldiers. It is happening to the people we thought we were there to help. It must end."
Like the Viet Nam veterans before them who testified, John Kerry among them, it is a human attempt to end something that should never have started, to prevent the tragedy that has so affected their lives from damaging others.
You deride these people because their experience disagrees with your own. They are people with a human conscience. If one is devoid of that most human commodity, then they(you)can't be bothered by the tragedy that they played a part in and that affected their lives irrevocably.
also has a story about the joyful return
of a Washington National Guard brigade and an Army Stryker brigade. Knowing from experience and Saturday’s testimony how difficult returning from war can be, the story sounds bittersweet.