'IT'S NOT SO MUCH ABOUT THE MISSION ANYMORE'
By Daniel Nasaw
March 17, 2008
SILVER SPRING, Maryland -- The order came over the radio: "Charlie Mike," U.S. army jargon for "continue mission."
Cliff Hicks' team of soldiers patrolling a typically friendly neighborhood had mistaken celebratory gunfire at a wedding for a hostile attack and had shot up a house, wounding two people and killing a little girl.
The troops didn't want to linger in the house, and their command center ordered them out.
"We didn't even have a translator, we didn't speak Arabic, we couldn't even say sorry," said Hicks, 23, a tank driver and machine gunner. "We just hopped in our vehicle and rode off."
Hicks and six other young veterans testified this weekend at a conference sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War. Titled "Winter Soldier," the conference at the National Labor College was modelled on a similar affair in 1971 in which Vietnam veterans spoke up about mayhem in that conflict.
The three-day forum is intended to draw attention to problems caused by the U.S. occupation of Iraq, at a time when most Americans think the war was a mistake and not worth the cost.
The sad-eyed men, one wearing service medals pinned to his suit jacket, spoke of deadly weapons fired indiscriminately on civilians' vehicles and homes, of daily, humiliating harassment of Iraqis, and of the dehumanizing effects the war has on the young men and women who volunteered to fight it.
Event organizers said the men's service records and stories were carefully vetted for accuracy, a job made easier since the Vietnam era by the proliferation of inexpensive digital cameras. Some said U.S. soldiers in Iraq carry them like side-arms.
The men hailed their comrades as typically well-meaning individuals, saving their criticism for the planning and execution of the war and the rules of engagement they said yielded civilian casualties.
"It's criminal to put such patriotic Americans who have sworn an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States of America in a situation where their morals are at odds with their survival instincts," said Adam Kokesh, who was a Marine Corps sergeant in Falluja in 2004.
Kokesh served on a civil affairs team tasked with winning over Iraqi hearts and minds. He said his unit joked with other soldiers, "We care so you don't have to."
The soldiers spoke of confusing rules of engagement, of the inability to discern violent insurgents from peaceable civilians, and of good-natured, patriotic Americans moved to violence by fear and anger at Iraqis who sought to drive them from their country.
Several of the men said they opposed the war from the beginning but volunteered for service in Iraq because they wanted to speed the U.S. mission to its conclusion or help the Iraqi people recover from the invasion. But some said attitudes soon changed.
"It's not so much about the mission anymore," said Steve Mortillo, who served as an infantryman in a cavalry unit in Iraq in 2004. "It's about doing what you have to do to make sure you don't have to stand in another formation and listen to 'Amazing Grace' played on bagpipes one more time.
5 YEARS ON, U.S. SOLDIERS RECALL IRAQ WAR HORRORS
By Karin Zeitvogel
March 18, 2008
WASHINGTON -- Private Clifton Hicks reopened painful memories as he recalled how his unit in Iraq had raced out to aid fellow U.S. soldiers who had come under fire, only to have to clumsily sweep up the tragic results of a furious counterattack.
"A patrol of 82nd airborne infantry guys in Humvees with machineguns on either side were attacked from the left by two or three insurgents," Hicks said, staring vacantly ahead as he gave testimony at "Winter Soldier," organized by Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW).
"Some of the guys also heard gunfire from the right, where there was housing for disabled families from the Iraqi army. So the whole platoon returned fire in both directions," he said.
Three people at a wedding party inside the house were hit. "An old man was slightly wounded. A girl of 10 was slightly wounded. A girl of six was dead," said Hicks. "She had been shot by a bunch of teenage American kids."
The 82nd left Hicks's unit to call the casualties in to the tactical operations center. "They told us: 'Charlie Mike.' That's military jargon for continue mission," he said.
"We had fired automatic weapons into the middle of a wedding party, wounding and killing several guests, and we were told to drive away and forget about it."
Hicks was one of scores of U.S. soldiers who, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, delved into wounded memories and gave testimony at "Winter Soldier" about what they had seen and done in Iraq.
Their stories painted a verbal equivalent of Picasso's "Guernica," recounting violence unleashed on civilians on superiors' orders, of corruption eating away at society, of bungled raids and botched counter-attacks followed by succinct orders to "Charlie Mike".
Bombing a village into submission or "free-fire" orders -- carte blanche to open fire on anything and everything -- were not uncommon, the soldiers said, even if both go against the U.S. military's rules of engagement, which state that positive identification is required before an attack is launched.
"Positive identification means you have reasonable certainty that your target is a legitimate military target," former Marine Adam Kokesh said.
Private Steve Casey recalled how his commanding officer once said "there were 'no friendlies'" in a residential area and announced: "Game on, all weapons free."
"I saw personal weapons fired into windshields and radiators of cars," he said, his gaze fixed on a spot on the floor.
The majority of victims of that operation were not the 700-800 enemy combatants claimed by officials but "civilians trying to flee the battleground," he added.
The soldiers praised their "battle buddies" and the troops currently in Iraq, as a few dozen pro-war demonstrators outside the venue denounced the testifiers as traitors and liars.
"I have not come here to pass judgment on my fellow soldiers; I am here to pass judgment on war itself," said Hicks.
Luis Montalvan, a 34-year-old former captain with a chestful of medals and two Iraq tours under his belt, said he joined the anti-war movement to denounce the statements put forward by high-ranking officials in Iraq, and the rampant corruption.
"General Petraeus and company have done everything they can do to propagate to the American public that 30,000 American troops have brought a reduction in violence," said Montalvan, who left the military last year after 17 years' service.
"They claim a reduction of violence in Baghdad. Well, 70 percent of residents have fled, so no wonder," he said.
He also accused the U.S. of skewing the civilian death toll to give credence to the surge.
"Every time a bomb goes off, the Americans count a smaller number of dead and wounded than the Iraqis. This is to skew the statistics to suggest the surge is successful," Montalvan said.
He added that U.S. generals have no oversight over American contractors in Iraq, some of whom get billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to procure and distribute weapons for the Iraqi security forces, but refuse to work with U.S. soldiers on the ground.
Montalvan, who is now tied to a cocktail of medications for ailments ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to chronic pain resulting from an attack, slammed the Bush administration for "perpetrating high crimes and misdemeanors, committing dereliction of duty, lies, and mismanagement" in Iraq.
As the medals on his chest caught a glint of spring sunlight, he called on Americans to "vote the right way" in the November presidential election.
"Vote for the candidate who is most likely to extricate us from Iraq," he said.
WHERE WAR MEETS PEACE
By Bob Koehler
March 19, 2008
“I trained my weapon on him,” Kristopher Goldsmith said. It was a little boy, 6 years old maybe, standing on a roof, menacing the soldiers with a stick. “I was thinking, I hate these Iraqis who throw rocks. I could kill this kid.”
OK, America, let’s look through the sights of Goldsmith’s rifle for a long, long half-minute or so, draw a bead on the boy’s heart, fondle the trigger -- what to do? The soldier’s decision is our decision.
This is occupied Iraq: the uncensored version, presented to us with relentless, at times unbearable honesty over four intense days last week in a historic gathering outside Washington, D.C., of returning vets, many of them broken and bitter about what they were forced to do, and what’s been done to them, in sometimes two, three, four tours of duty in the biggest mistake in American history.
“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776. “The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
The vets who told their stories last week, in an event at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., sponsored by Iraq Vets Against the War, are the “winter soldiers” of the war on terror, standing in service to their country by bearing the truth to it, just as Vietnam vets held the first Winter Soldier gathering 37 years ago in Detroit, in the wake of the My Lai massacre revelations, to let the American public know that that massacre wasn’t an aberration but, rather, the logical result of our brutal, official policy there.
Once again, the crisis we are in is the result of an official policy that has dehumanized an entire country, an entire people. Once again, we are waging a war that can only be “won” when the American people themselves demand an end to it. The men and women who spoke last week brought not just the truth but an imperative as urgent as a live grenade:
Unconditional withdrawal of all troops and contractors from Iraq NOW; full benefits for all returning vets; reparations for the Iraqi people, so they can rebuild their country on their own terms.
I was able to attend two days of the Winter Soldier gathering. What I witnessed was a convergence of forces of historical significance, as angry, idealistic warriors, horrified by what they saw and were ordered to do during their time in the military, ashamed of what they sometimes did willingly within the context of racist arrogance that is the occupation of Iraq, reclaimed their humanity by declaring themselves peace warriors. I found myself at the heart of the American conscience: the place where war meets peace.
To experience the full impact of this event, you can listen to the testimony, among other places, at ivaw.org. In this column, I have space for the briefest of summaries, as GIs up to the rank of captain talked about the realities of the occupation of Iraq.
House raids: Over and over again, the speakers gave variations of these words of Jeffrey Smith: “We had everyone in house, including children, zip-tied on the front lawn (when we) realized we were in the wrong house. So we went to another house.” Or these of Matthew Childers: “It seemed like we raided countless residences -- 3 a.m., our semiautomatics out, screaming at them in a language they didn’t understand. We rarely found anything.”
Detainees: Common themes were the beatings, the sleep deprivation. Childers again: “They were beaten, humiliated, teased with food and water. These guys were in our custody for a week and I didn’t see them eat the whole time. A Marine wiped his ass with an Iraqi’s hat and tried to feed it to a blindfolded Iraqi -- who was desperate for food and tried to eat it.”
Racism and general disrespect: The Iraqis were “hadjis” -- the equivalent, of course, of gooks or untermenschen. Speaker after speaker talked about receiving no cultural training in boot camp, but plenty of bayonet training. Matt Howard: “We treated Iraq like our own personal cesspool.” Bryan Casler: “I saw the destruction of the Babylon ruins -- people breaking off chunks to bring home; joyriding up walls. There was a complete lack of understanding.”
With all this in mind -- with an awareness that as many as a million Iraqis have died since the invasion, that 4 or 5 million have been displaced -- let us peer once again at the little boy in the sights of Goldsmith’s rifle.
“I was so close to killing a 6-year-old boy,” he said. “I was put in that position by the occupation of Iraq.” He could have taken the kid out, without consequence, but mastered the impulse, mastered his own drilled-in contempt for Iraqi life, and lowered his rifle.
He completed his tour, saw the horror, felt the death of his own youth, came home a severe alcoholic who got no help from the Army. Shortly before he was due to be discharged, his platoon was locked into an 18-month redeployment (part of the president’s troop surge); instead of going back, he tried to kill himself with pills and vodka. He failed at that, was hospitalized and ultimately received a general discharge from the Army with a “misconduct, serious offense” notation. He lost his college benefits. His life is shattered. He delivers pizza on Wednesdays to get by.
As he finished his testimony, Goldsmith named his commanding officers and announced, “I have a message for you.” He sprang to his feet, held his fingers in a V and cried: “Peace!”