While on tank patrol through the narrow streets of Abu Ghraib, just west
of Baghdad, Pfc. Clifton Hicks was given an order. Abu Ghraib had become
a “free-fire zone,” Hicks was told, and no “friendlies” or civilians
remained in the area. “Game on. All weapons free,” his captain said.
Upon that command, Hicks’s unit opened a furious fusillade, firing
wildly into cars, at people scurrying for cover, at anything that moved.
Sent in to survey the damage, Hicks found the area littered with human
and animal corpses, including women and children, but he saw no military
gear or weapons of any kind near the bodies. In the aftermath of the
massacre, Hicks was told that his unit had killed 700-800 “enemy
combatants.” But he knew the dead were not terrorists or insurgents;
they were innocent Iraqis. “I will agree to swear to that till the day I
die,” he said. “I didn’t see one enemy on that operation.”

Hicks soberly recounted this bloody incident to a packed auditorium in
Silver Spring, Maryland, as part of Winter Soldier: Iraq and
Afghanistan, a summit hosted March 13-16 by Iraq Veterans Against the
War (IVAW). Modeled after the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation–in
which Vietnam veterans, including John Kerry, testified in Detroit about
US atrocities in Vietnam–this incarnation featured more than fifty
veterans and active-duty service members testifying about engaging in or
witnessing atrocities and war crimes against Iraqi and Afghan civilians.
As a precondition for participation, IVAW required veterans to provide
corroborating evidence such as photographs, videos and additional
witnesses. Former marine Scott Camil, 61, who spoke at the first Winter
Soldier event, attended the conference along with seven fellow
Vietnam-era witnesses. “When we came home, the World War II and Korean
War veterans did not support our activities. I know how that feels,”
Camil said quietly. “We’re not going to let it happen to these guys.”

Soldiers and marines at Winter Soldier described the frustration of
routinely raiding the wrong homes and arresting the wrong people. It was
common for unarmed Iraqis to be killed at US checkpoints or by US
convoys, they said. Many said they were congratulated on their “first
kill.” Some even desecrated Iraqi corpses. Spc. Hart Viges said he
refused to pose in a photograph with a corpse when his fellow soldiers
prodded him. “I said no–not in the context of, That’s really wrong on
an ethical basis,” he said. “I said no because it wasn’t my kill. You
shouldn’t take trophies for things you didn’t kill. That’s where my
mind-set was back then.”

Several veterans said it was common to carry a stash of extra automatic
weapons and shovels to plant near the bodies of unarmed civilians they
had killed to make it look as if they were combatants. Others described
the surreal sensation of committing cold-blooded murder without facing
any consequences. Jon Michael Turner, who served as a machine gunner
with Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Eighth Marines, said he shot an
unarmed Iraqi in front of the man’s father and friend. “The first round
didn’t kill him, after I had hit him up here in his neck area. And
afterwards he started screaming and looked right into my eyes. So I
looked at my friend…and I said, ‘Well, I can’t let that happen.’ So I
took another shot and took him out. He was then carried away by the rest
of his family.” Later, Turner pointed to a tattoo on his right wrist of
the Arabic words for “fuck you.” “That was my choking hand,” he
explained. “And any time I felt the need to take out aggression, I would
go ahead and use it.”

“This is not an isolated incident,” the testifiers uttered over and
over, to the point of liturgy, insisting that the atrocities they
committed or witnessed were common. The hearings were not organized to
point fingers at “bad apples” or even particular squads, several
testifiers said.

IVAW issued an impassioned statement that condemned not only US military
tactics but the occupation itself. “The military is being asked to win
an occupation,” the statement read. “The troops on the ground know this
is an impossible task…. We have a political problem that cannot be
solved with a military solution. This is not a war that can be won. It
is an occupation that can only be ended.”

While the Winter Soldiers offered a searing critique of the military’s
treatment of civilians, which they described as alternately inhumane and
sadistic, they also empathized with fellow soldiers thrust into a
chaotic urban theater where the lines between combatants and civilians
are blurred. “It’s criminal to put such patriotic Americans…in a
situation where their morals are at odds with their survival instincts,”
said Adam Kokesh, who served as a Marine sergeant in the raid on
Fallujah in 2004.

For active-duty soldiers and veterans, testifying about combat duty
carries new risks–including the possibility of being charged in
military court for complicity in war crimes or in federal court under
the War Crimes Act of 1996. But such concerns were not enough to silence
their voices. “If it’s a choice between sitting in cowardice and not
speaking up against things that are wrong or being court-martialed, I’ll
take the court-martial,” said Selena Coppa, 25, an active-duty military
intelligence sergeant and one of several women who spoke at the

During the last day, photographs of nameless Iraqi dead flashed on large
screens. Army Sgt. Kristofer Goldsmith took the photos on May 15, 2005,
a day he remembered as “very hot, uncomfortable and miserable.”
Goldsmith was ordered to photograph a dozen Iraqis who were presumably
murdered and dumped in a large landfill. But the photos were not taken
to identify the dead or assist the Iraqi police investigation. “They
were used for morale purposes,” Goldsmith remarked bitterly. “[Soldiers]
bombarded me to copy my pictures. They made videos of them to send home
to their friends and families to brag, ‘This is war. This is what we did
to the Iraqis.'”

The Winter Soldier hearings also featured Iraqi testifiers like Salam
Talib, a 33-year-old computer engineering student. Though Talib said he
was encouraged to see so many US veterans describing their experiences
in frank terms, the testimonies were not much of a revelation for him.
“What the American soldiers are talking about is everyday life for
Iraqis. They’re not even talking about 10 percent of what’s happening
there,” Talib remarked with a shrug. “They are simply giving credibility
to the stories that have been told over and over from Iraq by
journalists, Iraqis and humanitarian organizations. The American
soldiers are saying, ‘We’re here, we did it and it’s true.’ ”