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 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.”
Watch The Nation‘s video coverage of this event in an original documentary by Laura Hanna and Astra Taylor:
“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 hearings.
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.’ ”