It's been determined that taxi drivers have the most dangerous job in Iraq, and if the Iraq Veterans Against the War Winter Soldier event this past weekend had taken place in Baghdad, my taxi driver might have gotten us both killed. Luckily, it occurred at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md. On Friday morning, as we entered the campus from the Beltway, a dozen or so protesters held signs denouncing the testifying soldiers: "WINTER SOLDIER MY ASS," one read. Security was tight. The Montgomery County sheriff's department operated out of a mobile unit that looked so innocuous you might have assumed they were selling corn dogs after a Little League game. But the paramilitary attire of the nearby riot-ready cops would quickly disabuse you of that notion. By the campus' entryway stood a group of IVAW supporters acting as further security. My taxi driver tried to dodge them but got held up by a burly, middle-aged guy. "What is going on?" asked the driver.
What was going on? Approximately 55 former members of the U.S. military were preparing to testify about the ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan—or what the IVAW consistently refers to as "occupations." No brainchild of the Pentagon, IVAW modeled its conference after the controversial 1971 Winter Soldier event that vivified (some say fictionalized) war crimes, human rights abuses, and military waste then occurring in Vietnam. The IVAW has three unifying aims: immediate withdrawal of all American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, reparations for the Iraqi people, and consistent and reliable medical care for all veterans of the war. Over the course of four days, the conference planned to address the continual breakdown and failure of military rules of engagement, the long-term societal cost of the war in the form of broken families and broken minds, the drastic privatization of the war in Iraq, racism and sexism in the military, and the future of GI resistance. And with Winter Soldier, the IVAW hoped to gain more media attention for the anti-war movement.
Entering the hall where the testimony was taking place, you might have thought you were at a "peace and social justice" conference at a Pacific Northwest liberal-arts college. Many of the audience members sported gray ponytails, and some of the security staff were members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But most of the IVAW soldiers testifying were born after 1982. For them, the Vietnam War brings up images of Pvt. Pyle from Full Metal Jacket and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Many participants of Winter Soldier 1971 had worn combat fatigues, and the event had come together catch-as-catch-can, with few resources and little polish; but Winter Soldier 2008 felt like a finely produced corporate workshop. The women I saw testify were in business attire. And while some of the men were in faded fatigues and desert boonie caps, hip-slung jeans, and hoodies, just as many wore suits or sport jackets. These are the new anti-war vets, and they know how to use image and technology to their advantage.
Jose Vasquez, IVAW board member and president of the New York chapter, told me, "I'm interested in professionalizing the organization." Vasquez served nearly 14 years in the active-duty Army and the Army reserve, initially as a cavalry scout and later posting as a training NCO for battle medics. It looked to me as though he'd left the barracks just hours ago. He made me—a former Marine—want to shave my unruly beard, tuck in my shirt, and knock out 20 four-count push-ups for good measure.
Born in the Bronx, Vasquez grew up in California and signed up for the Army in 1992 at the age of 17. Now pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology, he's a soft-spoken man who cared deeply for the Army and the soldiers he warmly calls "Joes"; he'd planned to spend 30 years serving his country. After 9/11, he would have served in Afghanistan with few reservations; but by the time his unit got the call for Iraq in 2005, he'd been having doubts not only about the efficacy of the war but about the morality of serving. As a medic, he patched soldiers' wounds so that they could head out on another mission and kill again. After "a lot of soul-searching," Vasquez applied for conscientious-objector status, and more than a year later he separated from the Army with an honorable discharge. When he described the day he told the men he led that he was not going to Iraq with them, Vasquez sounded remorseful and sad. He misses the Army and his Joes.
Critics will instantly identify any soldier testifying about immoral behavior on the battlefield as a bad seed. So Vasquez implemented an exhaustive process to confirm the veracity of the testimony being offered; his title is "IVAW verification team leader." Drawing on his background as an anthropologist, he trained 14 team members, mostly combat vets, in the verification process. Membership in IVAW was not required in order to offer testimony. "We were willing at least to take testimony from anybody, whether or not they were a member. They didn't even have to agree with our points of unity. If you had a story to tell about Iraq and you were able to prove your service, then we would give you a venue to spread that word." All told, approximately 140 people have come forward to offer testimony. It wasn't possible to have everyone testify this weekend, but Vasquez vows that IVAW will give anyone with a story to tell the venue to do so.
Clifton Hicks, a dead ringer for a young Matt Dillon, served in the Army as a tank driver and .50-caliber machine gunner from 2003 to 2004. His own testimony—among other things, he recalled watching a five-building apartment complex full of civilians being riddled with gunfire from a warplane—troubled him deeply. When I spoke to him Saturday morning, the totality of the first day of Winter Soldier was wearing heavily on him. He told me that for the first time since becoming an anti-war activist, he felt like quitting. Re-experiencing the destruction of war and thinking about friends who had died made him feel again "that I no longer cared about my life. … I felt like the only way I could make things right is to just strip my clothing and walk naked back to Florida, you know. … Just pay a penance or something." A panel on Friday about the rules of engagement, Hicks said, was "hard-hitting." During it, much of the testimony was of witness: abuse of Iraqi prisoners and detainees, indiscriminate firing in urban areas, the quick erosion of the rules as soon as someone in a unit died. As Hicks told me, "That [panel] was the personal shit, the upfront shit. I murdered shitloads of people. Not 'I saw shitloads of people die from a distance and thought it was funny.' "