Book Excerpt, The Will to Resist

The following is reprinted from Foreign Policy in Focus.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Dahr Jamail’s The Will To Resist: Soldiers who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket Books). The testimonies below were collected at a national conference, “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan,” held by Iraq Veterans Against the War.

The name “Winter Soldiers” refers to people who stand up for the soul of their country, even in its darkest hours. Thomas Paine, the revolutionary who rallied George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, trying to keep them from deserting in the face of a bitter winter and mounting defeats at the hands of the British, said: “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 by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

The phrase “Winter Soldiers” was adopted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) when they organized the first Winter Soldier event in response to the human rights violations that were occurring in Vietnam. The event, called “Winter Soldier Investigation,” was held in Detroit from January 31, 1971, to February 2, 1971, and was intended to publicize war crimes and atrocities perpetrated by the U.S. Armed Forces in the Vietnam War. VVAW challenged the morality and conduct of the war by exposing the direct relationship between military policies and war crimes in Vietnam. The three-day gathering of 109 veterans and 16 civilians included discharged servicemen from each branch of military service, civilian contractors, medical personnel, and academics, all of whom presented testimony about war crimes they had committed or witnessed during 1963–1970.

A smaller, modern-day incarnation of VVAW is IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War), which was founded in 2004. It seeks to offer a platform to those who have served in the military since September 11, 2001, to speak out against what they see as an unjust, illegal, and unwinnable war in Iraq. At the time of this writing, IVAW had more than 1,400 members in 49 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and on military bases overseas. IVAW held a national conference called “Winter Solider: Iraq and Afghanistan” outside Washington, D.C., in March 2008. The four-day event brought together more than 200 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans from across the country to testify about their experiences in both occupations. Although largely ignored by the corporate press, the event was of historical significance. For the first time since the invasion of Iraq in early 2003, former and current members of the U.S. military had organized with the specific purpose to make public the truth of their experience. It was hoped, in vain as it turned out, that the testimonies of veterans would provide the press with sufficient information to report on the truly catastrophic nature of the occupations and rouse people to take action.

At this first modern-day Winter Soldier event, I spoke with scores of veterans during breaks in the powerful panels of testimony. A constant refrain I heard was that individuals who had joined the military for honorable reasons were disillusioned upon sensing how they were being misused by the government of the country they had sworn under oath to serve and defend.

Hart Viges had felt compelled to join the U.S. Army the day after September 11, 2001, in the genuine belief that he could help make the world a safer place. Like other speakers at the Winter Soldier event, he admitted that U.S. troops routinely detained innocent people during home raids. “We never went on the right raid where we got the right house, much less the right person — not once.” He said it was common practice for troops to take photographs as war trophies. “We were driving in Baghdad one day and found a dead body on the side of the road. We pulled over to secure the area and my friends jumped off and started taking pictures with it, smiling. They asked me if I wanted to join them, and I refused. Not because it was unethical, but because it wasn’t my kill. Because you shouldn’t make trophies of what you didn’t kill. I wasn’t upset this man was dead, but just that they shouldn’t be taking credit for something they didn’t do. But that’s war.”

Speaking on a panel about the rules of engagement (ROE) was Adam Kokesh, whom I had met at the veterans’ house in D.C. He had served with the marines in Fallujah for about a year from February 2004. He held up a small card for the audience to see, the ROE issued to soldiers in Iraq, which stated, “Nothing on this card prevents you from using deadly force to defend yourself.” He elaborated on the condition of “reasonable certainty” that allowed for the use of deadly force under the ROE and led to countless civilian deaths. “We changed the ROE more often than we changed our underwear. At one point, we imposed a curfew on the city [Fallujah], and were told to fire at anything that moved in the dark. I don’t think soldiers should ever be put in situations where they must choose between their morals and their instinct for survival.”

Kokesh testified that during two ceasefires in the midst of the siege of Fallujah, the military decided to let out as many women and children from the embattled city as possible. “For males to be released, they had to be below fourteen years of age. It was my brief to go over there and turn the men back, separated from their women and children. We thought we were being gracious.”

Steve Casey served in Iraq for more than a year, from mid-2003. “We were scheduled to go home in April 2004, but due to rising violence had to stay in with Operation Black Jack. I watched soldiers firing into the radiators and windows of oncoming vehicles. Those who didn’t turn around at checkpoints were neutralized one way or another. Well over twenty times I personally witnessed this.”

Jason Hurd, posted in central Baghdad from November 2004 to November 2005, testified how, after his unit took “stray rounds” from a nearby firefight, a machine gunner responded by firing more than 200 rounds into a nearby building.

We fired indiscriminately at this building. Things like that happened every day in Iraq. We reacted out of fear for our lives, and we reacted with total destruction. Over time, as the absurdity of war set in, individuals from my unit indiscriminately opened fire at vehicles driving down the wrong side of the road. People in my unit would later brag. I remember how appalled I was that we could be laughing about such things, but that was the reality…We’re disrupting not only the lives of Iraqis but also the lives of our veterans with this occupation. If a foreign occupying force came here to the United States, do you not think that every person that has a shotgun would come out of the hills and fight for his right for self-determination? Ladies and gentlemen, that country is suffering from our occupation, and ending that suffering begins with the total and immediate withdrawal of all of our troops.

Marine Vincent Emmanuel was posted near the northern Iraqi city of Al-Qaim from 2004 to 2005, and disclosed in his testimony that “taking potshots at cars that drove by happened all the time and were not isolated incidents. We took fire while trying to blow up a bridge. Many of the attackers were part of the general population. This led to our squad shooting at everything and anything in order to push through the town. I remember myself emptying magazines into the town, never identifying a target.” Co-panelists nodded in agreement as he confessed to abusing prisoners he knew to be innocent. “We took it upon ourselves to harass them, sometimes took them to the desert and threw them out of our Humvees, kicking and punching them even as we did so.”

Others testified that it was not uncommon to justify accidental killings of civilians by planting weapons on them. Corporal Jason Washburn of the marines served three tours in Iraq, the last one in Haditha from 2005 to 2006. “We were encouraged to bring ‘drop weapons’ or shovels, in case we accidentally shot a civilian so that we could drop the weapon on the body and make it appear like that of an insurgent. By the third tour, if they were carrying a shovel or bag, we were allowed to shoot them. We carried these tools and weapons in our vehicles, so we could toss them on civilians when we shot them.”

In 2004, psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote an article for the Nation. Sharing his insights about the invasion and occupation of Iraq he writes about, “atrocity-producing situations,” which occur when a power structure creates an environment where “ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can regularly commit atrocities…This kind of atrocity-producing situation…surely occurs to some degree in all wars, including World War II, our last ‘good war.’ But a counterinsurgency war in a hostile setting, especially when driven by profound ideological distortions, is particularly prone to sustained atrocity — all the more so when it becomes an occupation.”

At the same hearing, an emotional Jon Michael Turner pulled his military medals off his shirt and flung them down as the audience cheered. He had served two tours as a machine gunner in Iraq.

I was taught as a marine to eat the apple to the core. April 18, 2006, was the date of my first confirmed kill. I called him “the fat man.” He was innocent. I killed him in front of his father and friend as he was walking home. My first shot made him scream and ” look into my eyes, so I looked at my friend and said, “Well, I can’t let that happen,” and shot him again. After my first kill, I was congratulated…I want to apologize for the hate and destruction that I and others have inflicted on innocent people. It is not okay, and this is happening, and until people hear of what is going on, it is going to continue. Today I am no longer the monster that I once was.

The impact of the first Winter Soldier event inspired other veterans to organize similar events across the country. The first of these was the Northwestern Regional Winter Soldier at the Seattle Town Hall, in June 2008. The 850-seating capacity was nearly full on the occasion. Veterans from the U.S. occupation of Iraq had converged there to share stories of atrocities being committed daily in Iraq. Endorsed by dozens of local and regional antiwar groups, including Veterans for Peace and Students for a Democratic Society, the meeting drew local and some international media attention. The testimonies of the U.S. service members who had participated in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan were intended to establish to the public that the occasional stories of wrongdoing in both countries that the mainstream press chose to expose were not isolated incidents limited to a few “bad apples,” as the Pentagon claimed.

“We’ve heard from the politicians, from the generals, from the media — now it’s our turn,” announced Iraq war veteran Kelly Dougherty, who served in Iraq as a military police officer in 2003. “It’s not going to be easy to hear what we have to say. It’s not going to be easy for us to tell it. But we believe that the only way this war is going to end is if the American people truly understand what we have done in their name.”

With a view to drawing mainstream media coverage, the earlier Winter Soldier event in D.C. had been closed to the general public. The hoped-for mainstream media coverage did not materialize, but IVAW experienced a burst of growth, its membership expanding rapidly in the months following the event. The strategy for the Northwest Regional Winter Soldier, in contrast, was to be inclusive. The organizers were keen to involve not just the community in Seattle, but also in surrounding areas, in the event. In order to energize public antiwar sentiment and capitalize on it, the veterans led a determined demonstration of hundreds through the streets of downtown Seattle, following the hearings at the Town Hall. Traffic was halted for nearly an hour by protestors chanting slogans of “U.S. out of the Middle East,” “No Justice, No Peace,” and carrying placards that read, “You Can’t Be All You Can Be If You’re Dead!”

Iraq war veteran Chanan Suarez Diaz was stationed at Okinawa, Japan, immediately after serving in Iraq. Diaz started exchanging e-mails with his tenth-grade drama teacher to pour out his discontent about what he had experienced in Iraq. His teacher told him about a veterans’ group, and Diaz joined the group online, while still active duty. Simultaneously, he launched into a self-education program, reading political books and progressive news online. By the time he returned to the United States, he was ready to begin organizing, giving talks and raising awareness about the occupation. He was involved in the first “Fund the wounded, not the war” protest outside his local VA in Seattle, and has also been involved in shutting down military recruiting stations around the Seattle area.

Of Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and all others complicit in orchestrating the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Diaz says, “I think they should be tried, by members of the American community, and also by the Iraqi people. What they have done is inexcusable, and whatever is done to them, no matter how harsh, will still not suffice to bring justice to the Iraqi people and the American people after what they have suffered.”
Diaz believes,

It is very important to read history and draw the lessons from other movements. We must learn from what worked then and what did not. We must know the facts and the depth of the G.I. movement in the ’60s and ’70s. That gives me hope. I also feel hopeful about the different forms of resistance popping up today, like more soldiers refusing to fight, the dissent, the more thinking that I see a lot of active-duty people do. The longer this continues, the riper the conditions for more soldiers to refuse to fight.

Despite what the Pentagon and its chief agent, mainstream American media, project about the overwhelming national and international support that legitimize the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is enough evidence to indicate otherwise. The question that begs introspection is whether the American public will put this evidence to use to build sufficient pressure on the government to change America’s foreign policy.

Dahr Jamail, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, has reported from Iraq. He is also the author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq.