One student — a veteran, conscientious objector and anti-war leader — tells his story.
Over the weekend of March 14, as most students were preparing for spring break, something incredible happened in our nation’s capitol. For the second time in U.S. history, combat veterans from a current war gathered to testify on immoral and illegal military policies they had witnessed while serving abroad. The event, called Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, drew over two hundred veterans. Over three days, veterans offered testimony on the killing of innocent civilians, torture, waste, discrimination, sexual assault, fraud, and the mutilation of the dead. Testifiers represented a broad swathe of the military, having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Corps, from the initial invasion to the surge.
The event took its name from the first Winter Soldier, held in a Detroit hotel in 1971, which helped expose the atrocities of the Vietnam War. Organizers from Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) named the event after the words of Thomas Paine, who in 1776 admonished the “summer soldiers” and “sunshine patriots” who treated national service like a part-time job. During that first forum in Detroit, members of VVAW asserted that they were continuing their patriotic duty by exposing the realities of the war to the American public.
The time has come again for Winter Soldiers to speak out. Every day, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are witnessing practices that are an affront to both their individual consciences and the conventions of international law. Returning home from war, most soldiers keep these experiences to themselves. On the few occasions that they do discuss the war, veterans tend to sanitize and gloss over their war stories with the popular narrative of liberation.
In my view, this silence results from an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in civil-military relations. Traditionally, American citizens are told to unconditionally support their troops, to avoid asking any real questions. For their part, soldiers are told that civilians can’t handle the truth, that they must be psychologically protected from the realities of war. Instead of speaking out about their experiences, veterans carry the full burden of their memories. Wary of betraying their fellow soldiers, and even more scared that their experiences will mark them as monsters, many veterans carry their stories to the grave.
The cost of this policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is devastating. While the media narrative continues uninterrupted, a generation of veterans is being pushed to the margins of society. With inadequate benefits and a profound feeling of being misunderstood, many soldiers turn to self-medication and solitude. No wonder that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are already showing up in homeless shelters, and are two to four times more likely to commit suicide than their peers. The consequences for our democracy are equally damaging. A civilian population that remains ignorant of the realities of modern war can’t possibly hold their leaders accountable for the consequences of U.S. foreign policy.
In the interest of breaking this “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, here’s my story:
In 2003, I was deployed to Afghanistan as a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division. My unit operated out of the Kandahar international airport, which had been transformed into a temporary field clinic shortly after the invasion. We ran sick call for U.S. troops, operated the military equivalent of an emergency room and performed “hearts and minds” missions in nearby villages. As part of the humanitarian component of our mission, we also offered emergency care to local civilians who had been involved in accidents or caught in the crossfire between U.S. soldiers and Afghan resistance fighters. As might be expected, many of our patients didn’t survive. Rather than preparing these corpses for burial, however, as was always done with dead American soldiers, a different policy was followed for Afghans. After dying, Afghan corpses were routinely used as teaching tools for medical “practice.”
The first time this happened, I was re-stocking one of our trauma stations when I heard an officer yell out from the surgery room: “Who wants to see what a human heart feels like?” Following surgery, the patient’s chest had been cracked open to reveal the thoracic cavity. Soldiers were invited to come into the surgery room, don gloves, and feel around inside the body. Some took pictures. It was an informative lesson on human anatomy, but it was also a flagrant violation of both the Hippocratic Oath and international law, to say nothing of common sense morality. Imagine if you brought a family member to the hospital, and they sadly passed away. Now imagine how you would feel if you discovered that their body had been used, without permission, for medical students to poke, prod and photograph? This is particularly offensive in Islamic societies, where the sanctity of the dead is protected by religious law. It’s also worth noting that this practice wasn’t limited to anatomy lessons. One patient was given three post-mortem chest tubes, an emergency procedure designed to create a third airway through the ribs. This amounted to nothing less than the mutilation of the dead.
My story is not an isolated incident, and I’ve spoken with medics in Iraq who saw the same practice in Baghdad. It’s not hard to see that this kind of behavior resulted from a systematic dehumanization of the local population, inevitable in any military occupation. By seeing Afghans as less than human, my unit was able to practice on their dead bodies, without permission, as if they were animals. Obviously, this attitude results in more extreme abuses.
Veterans at Winter Soldier testified to a wide variety of abuses. As the testimonial team leader for the event, I was responsible for coordinating the collection, verification, and presentation of all testimony, as well as ensuring that all testifiers received legal and mental health counseling. Over one hundred veterans volunteered to tell their stories, and from this body of testimony, several patterns emerged. The first pattern I noticed was that many soldiers had seen the implementation of extremely broad Rules of Engagement (ROE). These rules, designed to prevent the unnecessary loss of life, determine when soldiers can use lethal force. Many soldiers testified that they had been told they were entering “free fire” zones, where it was permissible to literally shoot anything that moved. Many of these soldiers were told to carry “drop weapons” in their Humvees; if they killed an innocent civilian, they would leave the weapon on the body and call it a combatant.
As I already mentioned, the other common theme in the testimony was dehumanization. Testifiers told stories of pervasive racism, including among general staff, which translated into widespread abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s beyond the scope of this article to describe the full range of testimony offered during the three days of Winter Soldier. However, on April 15, Cornellians will get an opportunity to see a live screening of select portion of Winter Soldier. The viewing will take place at 7:00 PM in Lewis Auditorium, Goldwin Smith, and be followed by live testimony and discussion with members of Iraq Veterans Against the War. Alternatively, you can view selections of the testimony on Iraq Veterans Against the War’s website (www.ivaw.org).
As I’ve suggested above, veterans who break the military code of silence have to overcome a psychological gauntlet of guilt and fear. Many are attacked by their former brothers and sisters in the military, and some could be facing legal repercussions for their testimony. I would encourage every member of the Cornell community to meet the courage of these testifiers, to not ignore the words of those who volunteered to fight. I won’t mince words when I say that, as much as it is our duty to come forward and tell our stories, it your responsibility to listen.
Perry O’Brien served as a specialist with the 82nd Airborne, U.S. Army, from 2001 to 2004. He was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003, and honorably discharged as a conscientious objector. O’Brien is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the testimonial team leader for Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.