Independent journalist Dahr Jamail, author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, reports from the IVAW Northwest Regional Winter Soldier hearings. This article appeared in www.socialistworker.org.
ON MAY 31, dozens of veterans from the U.S. occupation of Iraq converged in Seattle to share stories of atrocities being committed daily in Iraq, in a continuation of the “Winter Soldier” hearings held in Silver Spring, Md., in March.
At the Seattle Town Hall, approximately 800 people gathered to hear the testimonies of veterans from Iraq. The event was sponsored by the Northwest Regional Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), and endorsed by dozens of local and regional antiwar groups like Veterans for Peace, the International Socialist Organization, and Students for a Democratic Society.
“I watched Iraqi police bring in someone to interrogate,” Seth Manzel, a vehicle commander and machine gunner in the U.S. Army, told the audience. “There were four men on the prisoner...one was pummeling his kidneys with his fists, another was inserting a bottle up his rectum. It looked like a frat house gang-rape.”
Manzel joined the army after 9/11 for economic reasons—he’d just been laid off, and his wife had just had a baby. Manzel told another story of military medics he was with in Tal Afar, who refused to treat an elderly man in their detention center. Manzel described the old man as being jaundiced and lying on the ground, writhing in pain.
“The medics said the old man was just being lazy, and they were not authorized to treat detainees,” Manzel said.
Strategy and tactics
In a clear change of strategy to energize public antiwar sentiment, Iraq veterans led a determined demonstration of hundreds through the streets of downtown Seattle last Saturday, following the hearings at the Seattle Town Hall.
A larger, national Winter Soldier event occurred at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., from March 13 to 16. But the strategy for those hearings appeared to be based on keeping the event from being directly affiliated with any demonstrations or antiwar activities in an attempt to reach a broader audience. Those hearings were closed to the public, and no demonstrations or other overtly public actions were tied to the event.
This tactic was apparently meant to draw in more national mainstream media coverage of the event, which, with few exceptions, did not materialize. Chanan Suarez Diaz, the Seattle chapter president of IVAW, which organized last weekend’s event, had told me that his chapter, along with others in the Northwest region, intended to make a major effort to draw the public into both the testimonials and taking action afterward. The Seattle regional Winter Soldier event was open to the public.
A late April poll conducted by CNN/Opinion Research Corporation found that nearly three-quarters (68 percent) of respondents opposed the Iraq War. The strategy of the regional IVAW groups is clearly meant to capitalize on the growing opposition to the occupation of Iraq among the U.S. public.
Christopher Diggins, a psychotherapist who attended the demonstration, reflected the feelings of many—that this strategy is important. “This tactic is better because you have to get the community involved,” Diggins told me. “You have to have community awareness and support.”
“I want to show my solidarity for vets who are against the war, because it is the only way this war is going to stop,” he added. “It’s hard to have the war if nobody is going to fight.” Diggins founded the Soldiers Project Northwest in Washington state. The project is a group of therapists that volunteer to work one hour per week each with soldiers and their families who need assistance.
The enthusiastic support for the veterans translated directly onto the street appeared very effective, as most people were deeply moved by the testimonies they had just heard.
Jan Critchfield worked as an Army journalist while attached to the 1st Cavalry in Baghdad during 2004. “I was with a unit that shot at a man and wife near a checkpoint,” Critchfield said to the audience in the Town Hall. “She had been shot through her shinbone, and that was the first story I covered in Iraq.”
Critchfield told the audience that his unspoken job in Iraq was to “counter the liberal media bias” about the occupation. “Our target audience was in the U.S., and the emphasis was reporting on humanitarian aid missions the military conducted,” Critchfield said. “I don’t know how many stories I reported on chicken drops (distributing frozen chickens in a community).
“I don’t know what else you can call that, other than propaganda. I would find the highest ranking person I could get, and quote them verbatim, without fact checking anything they said.”
Other veterans told of lax rules of engagement that led to the slaughter of innocent civilians in Iraq.
“We were told we’d be deploying to Iraq and that we needed to get ready to have little kids and women shoot at us,” Sergio Kochergin, a former marine who served two deployments in Iraq, told the audience. “It was an attempt to portray Iraqis as animals. We were supposed to do humanitarian work, but all we did was harass people and drive like crazy on the streets, pretending it was our city, and we could do whatever we wanted to do.”
As the other veterans on the panel nodded in agreement, Kochergin continued, “We were constantly told everybody there wants to kill you, everybody wants to get you. In the military, we had racism within every rank, and it was ridiculous. It seemed like a joke, but that joke turned into destroying people’s lives in Iraq.”
“I was in Husaiba with a sniper platoon right on the Syrian border, and we would basically go out on the town and search for people to shoot,” Kochergin said. “The rules of engagement (ROE) got more lenient the longer we were there. So if anyone had a bag and a shovel, we were to shoot them. We were allowed to take our shots at anything that looked suspicious. And at that point in time, everything looked suspicious.”
Kochergin added, “Later on, we had no ROE at all. If you see something that doesn’t seem right, take them out.” He concluded by saying, “Enough is enough, it’s time to get out of there.”
Doug Connor was a first lieutenant in the army and worked as a surgical nurse in Iraq. While there, he worked as part of a combat support unit, and said most of the patients he treated were Iraqi civilians. “There were so many people that needed treatment we couldn’t take all of them,” he said. “When a bombing happened and 45 patients were brought to us, it was always Americans treated first, then Kurds, then the Arabs.”
Connor added quietly, “It got to the point where we started calling the Iraqi patients ‘range balls,’ because just like on the driving range (in golf), you don’t care about losing them.”
Chanan Suarez Diaz was a navy hospital corpsman who returned from Iraq with a purple heart, among other medals. He served in Ramadi from September 2004 to February 2005 with a weapons company.
“Our commanding officer wanted us to go through a route that another platoon did, and was completely wiped out in an ambush,” Diaz explained. “We refused. They canceled that mission, and we didn’t go. I don’t think these are isolated incidents. I think this is happening every day in Iraq. The military doesn’t want you to know about this, because it’s kind of like lighting a fire in a prairie.”
In the streets
Saturday’s event found veterans leaving their testimony to lead a crowd directly onto the streets to begin a demonstration. Protesters chanting “U.S. out of the Middle East. No justice, no peace,” and carrying signs such as “You Can’t Be All You Can Be If You’re Dead!” stopped traffic for nearly an hour.
“I’m here to support the war resisters,” Theresa Mosqueda, a Seattle resident who works on health policy advocacy for children and marched behind members of IVAW, told me. “They are the core part of ending this war. This is an illegal and immoral war, and the resisters have the power to stop it.”
The regional Winter Soldier hearings were a smaller event, and there was no national mainstream media coverage. However, there was heavy local and alternative media coverage. At least one of the major Seattle television stations covered the testimonials, as well as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the largest paper in the region.
The group Just Foreign Policy estimates that over 1.2 million Iraqis have died since the U.S.-led invasion began in March 2003. The Opinion Business Research group in Britain estimates the same number. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, at least 4,089 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq.
Many of the demonstrators were vets themselves who had just given testimony about their time in Iraq. They included Josh Simpson, Sergio Kochergin, Seth Manzel, Mateo Rebecchi, Jan Critchfield, Doug Connor, and many others.
IVAW now boasts over 1,200 members, a 50 percent increase since the March Winter Soldier hearings in Maryland. The fastest-growing segment of their membership is active-duty soldiers.