Voices of the Winter Soldiers
Socialist Worker talked to veterans from three wars--and participants in the Winter Soldier hearings, then and now--about their experiences and what turned them into antiwar activists
Iraq: Phil Aliff
Stationed in Baghdad; recently discharged from the 10th Mountain Division; co-founder of the IVAW chapter at Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y.
WHEN I was in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, we did an operation in western Baghdad, during which the Iraqi army unit we were working with was digging up a weapons cache and came under fire. One of the Iraqi army soldiers was wounded, and they fired back and wounded the Iraqi firing at them.
I went into the tent to help out with any medical needs, and my first sergeant is yelling at everyone in the tent that we don't have to treat the wounded Iraqi because we didn't shoot him.
He's sitting there yelling about this while this guy is just laying on the table. Finally, they decide to treat him, and when the helicopter comes in to take him to the hospital in Baghdad, we're running out to the landing zone with a stretcher.
One of the flight medics jumps off and says we can't put him on yet because we have to get the proper identification on him before we take him to Baghdad. I looked at the Iraqi guy, and he was going into shock because of a loss of blood.
Because of the delays and arguing about whether to even treat him, he died.
The experience really showed all of us that there is a systematic assault on the Iraqi people--and that this policy of not treating the Iraqis we don't shoot is just one part of that.
We invade a country under the banner of liberation, and we're being told as soldiers that we're going over there to improve these people's lives, and then we see that we are not even treating them when they are wounded.
This isn't the real motivation. As soldiers, we saw it wasn't about helping Iraqis. And the Iraqis certainly know that. It leaves only one conclusion. This war is about controlling Iraq's oil resources. Not about liberating anyone.
Afghanistan: Perry O'Brien
Stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan; medic with the 82nd Airborne; IVAW member and part of the organizing team for Winter Soldier
AS PART of our winning-hearts-and-minds mission in 2003, in addition to supporting combat operations, we would often treat Afghan civilians who had been involved a car wreck or something like that.
On several occasions, one of our patients would die. The surgeons who were overseeing their medical treatment would invite the medics to look at and touch the heart or to practice intubations with chest tubes. The patient would die, and all of a sudden, the body would become a teaching tool, which is obviously in sharp contrast to the way the bodies of American soldiers were treated.
I doubt you would be able to find a policy regarding this practice in writing. To me, rather, it is a natural consequence of the unofficial policy of dehumanization. I've spoken with medics in Iraq who said that they saw the same thing.
I think where it comes from is a pervasive attitude toward the Afghan people that they are subhuman. So when they die, unlike American soldiers' bodies, which are treated with a great deal of care and respect, they are viewed as inanimate objects that we can do whatever we want with.
I think there is an extra layer of disillusionment for a lot of soldiers in Afghanistan, especially in areas with a high operations tempo. People don't really tend to think of Afghanistan as still being a hot war.
Vietnam: Michael Uhl
Stationed in Vietnam; military intelligence officer with the 11th Infantry; member of board of directors of Veterans for Peace; author of Vietnam Awakening
EVEN THOUGH I was incredibly naïve about the world and history and had no idea even where Vietnam was, I was sensitive to the questions of domination and bullying. It was on a visceral level that I reacted to the racism, without even being able to call it that. I had an affinity for Vietnamese people I had contact with, and I had contact with quite a few.
And then I was exposed to torture--electric shock, pistol whipping, broken bones and a general kind of colonial arrogance--and at that point my affinity didn't extend to people outside the circle of our base camp. After the first couple of times during which I numbly observed, I then began to see the reality of what I was involved in there.
I thought we were the wrong side. I didn't put it together historically or politically. I didn't have an analysis. But I had a visceral sense that I was part of an invading army. My consciousness about the war accelerated way beyond my understanding of the history or the politics of the event that I was actually witnessing.
It just didn't feel right to me. But it wasn't the soldiers that were barbaric--it was the policies that were barbaric.
Our objective was not to actually get the government to investigate itself, not to have the American ruling class to put itself in the docks of Nuremburg. Our objective was to end the war in Vietnam. And this was the issue that we had hit on as a way to make a real contribution--by organizing veterans.
So when we talked about how tactical field policy systematically led to genocide or created the atmosphere in which these atrocities were committed, it was with the intent of educating the public in order to organize a movement strong enough to force the government to end the war.