War is hell - always. At rare and tragic times in human history war is surely necessary. But ignoring its tragic reality creates a climate in which war is entered into far too easily.
We honor the dead soldiers as we should. The financial cost of war gets a fair amount of attention. But the tragic results of war are far more numerous than those two awful tally sheets.
Winter Soldier II, sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), mirrors an earlier event from 1971 at which John Kerry famously testified. War hawks love to mock these events as "far left" gatherings, and consider the testimony of these veterans as treasonous and "un-American". The dozens of veterans who have chosen to speak understand how they will be unjustly vilified because of that choice, and yet their conscience demands no less of them. We can be sure that they are only the tip of the iceberg, among returnees whose humanity has been challenged in ways that it never should.
The "Rules of Engagement" for the Iraq war have been exposed as an ever shifting standard, and the extent to which they have been followed is often in flux, and largely depending on the mindset of the military leaders of individual operations. Soldiers who returned for many tours of duty related the generally declining standards as time wore on, as soldiers and leaders became hardened by their experiences. The nature of the battle, where the enemy was often difficult to identify, made tragic deaths and maiming of innocents more and more commonplace with time.
Democracy Now has been airing this testimony this week, and will continue that tomorrow. IVAW has live blogged the event. I challenge you to listen or read and tell me that these soldiers are lying, or that their experiences do not challenge notions of decency in how this war is being waged.
One sample piece of testimony came from Corporal Washburn of the Marines:
Something else we were actually encouraged to do, almost with a wink and a nudge, was to carry drop weapons or, by my third tour, drop shovels. What that basically is, is we would carry these weapons or shovels with us, because in case we accidentally did shoot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body and make them look like they were an insurgent. Or, you know, like my friend here were saying, we were told by my third tour that if they were carrying a shovel or—you know, and a heavy bag, if they were digging anywhere, especially near roads, that we could shoot them. And so, we actually carried these tools and weapons in our vehicles in case we accidentally shot an innocent civilian, and we could just toss it on them and be like, “Well, he was digging. I was within the rules of engagement.” And this was commonly encouraged, but only behind closed doors. It wasn’t obviously a public announcement that they would make. But, yeah, it was pretty common.This is nowhere close to the most shocking testimony I've seen, but it is indicative of the layers of disconnect between the reality and the official, and between the official and the "ideal". No one expects that war will not be accompanied by horror, but when the horrible becomes sanctioned to one degree or another by a White House Counsel, or a military directive, or a commander's prerogative, we guarantee that the horror will become pervasive.
It is not easy to pay attention to this tragedy. The mainstream media knows that it is easier to simply ignore Winter Soldier II, and the questions which it raises. They have an election to cover and celebrities' misdeeds to watch. Meanwhile innocent citizens continue to be killed and maimed, our reputation continues to be dragged to greater depths, and soldiers return home with injuries both physical and psychological which will impact them for life, and a training in violence that in many cases will haunt us once again.
We cannot learn if we will not look.