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They Lived to Tell: Winter Soldier

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Last March, veterans of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan gathered to talk about what they'd seen and done and survived.  The event was called "Winter Soldier" and the soldiers' testimony is recorded in a powerful new book: "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations," by Iraq Veterans Against the War and Aaron Glantz.

The book reveals two worlds that are little known to producers employed by the corporate media cartel, people who believe in threats from third-world nations, wars for democracy, surges, war against terrorism, trickle-down economics, and the justifiability of torture.

The first new world revealed is that of the crimes these young men and women committed, witnessed, and understood as part of the official policies they were ordered to carry out.  Here are some excerpts from the statements of those who lived to tell about it:

"He watched the commander who had given us the order to shoot anyone on the street shoot two old ladies that were walking and carrying vegetables."

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"I remember one woman walking by.  She was carrying a huge bag, and she looked like she was heading toward us, so we lit her up with the Mark 19, which is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled, we realized that the bag was full of groceries.  She had been trying to bring us food and we blew her to pieces."

"We would carry these weapons or shovels with us because if we accidentally shot a civilian, we could just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent."

"I want to start by showing you a video of the Executive Officer of Kilo Company.  We had gotten into a two-hour long firefight, and it was over for quite some time, but he still felt the need to drop a five-hundred-pound laser-guided missile on northern Ramadi. [Turner shows a video of the XO gloating after ordering the dropping of the bomb.  In the video the officer says:] 'I think I just killed half of the population of northern Ramadi, f*ck the red tape.  It doesn't f*cking matter.'"

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"We were all congratulated after we had our first kills, and that happened to have been mine.  My company commander personally congratulated me.  This is the same individual who stated that whoever gets their first kill by stabbing them to death would get a four-day pass when we returned from Iraq."

"The place was heavily populated.  Besides having a handful of people with rifles who didn't really know how to shoot them and a handful of people who spotted for mortars, it was packed full of innocent families and it was in no way a legitimate target.  But one day the squadron commander, who was a lieutenant colonel, rode by in his personal Humvee and they shot at him.  So the command went around and told everybody that at ten o'clock that night they were gonna put on a show for us.  So this AC-130 showed up and didn't just strafe or shoot a few rounds here and there; it approached and launched sustained attacks on those buildings."

"An act that took place quite often in Iraq was taking pot shots at cars that drove by."

"Another task our platoon took on was transporting prisoners from our base back to the desert.  The reason I say the desert and not their town is because that is exactly where we would drop them off, in the middle of nowhere.  Now, most of these men had obviously been deemed innocent, or else they would have been moved to a more permanent prison and not released back into the population.  We took it upon ourselves to punch, kick, butt stroke, or generally harass these prisoners.  Then, we would take them to the middle of the desert, throw them out of the back of our Humvees while continually kicking, punching, and at times throwing softball-sized rocks at their backs as they ran away from our convoy.  Once again, this is not an isolated incident, and this took place over the duration of our eight-month deployment."

"The other issue I would like to address is the common usage of the Quick Reaction Force, which is a rotating five-man team established each morning.  If a detainee is unsatisfied with his stay [at Guantanamo] and becomes rowdy, five grown men are fitted with riot gear and lined up outside of a cell while the platoon leader of that camp sprays the detainee in the face with pepper spray. …  The Standard Operating Procedures do not state that you should beat the sh*t out of the detainees, but I guess that some people just decided that's what they were going to do anyway.  These are all on tape, by the way."  

The other world that is revealed in this same testimony is the fantasy land that these kids lived in when they signed up for "service" thinking that joining the U.S. military was a way to do good for the world.  Seriously, a lot of them claim to have joined with the best of intentions.  In fact, it might be more accurate to say that there are three worlds in this book.  The third is the schizophrenic world these Iraq-Afghanistan-Guantanamo veterans now inhabit, mixing pride and shame in their view of the military.  They can't help straining to find good in it, even while denouncing what it and they themselves have done.

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And then there is a fourth world illuminated by an additional section of the book: the world of Iraqi civilians.  I'll give you just one sample excerpt:

"They started shooting at the walls.  They even shot the fish tank.  It was a dark night for us.  They started to search everything.  They threw things from the cabinets, they messed up the house. …  I asked my son, Ali, to ask them to leave the books, they were French lesson books.  Ali asked them not to take the books, that they belonged to a student.  They hit Ali on the head.  They hit him so hard his neck almost broke. …  We always remember that night.  I still remember my daughter Sarah screaming.  She kept screaming and crying.  It still affects her.  We took her outside while they were working on fixing our house.  When she hears a noise she screams: 'The Americans!  The Americans are coming!'"

There are other worlds explored in "Winter Soldier" as well, including the world of sexism and harassment of homosexuals in the U.S. military, and including the shameful mistreatment of veterans and military families by the military and the Veterans Administration.  A further section explores the outrageously bad planning, poor equipment, lack of armor, and even lack of weapons in Iraq.  If anything this is the sort of criticism that is permitted in our corporate-Congressional communications complex, and yet it is too little known.  We still fund extensions of the occupation of Iraq based on the bizarre notion that if we don't we'll have to leave the troops there but bring the weapons home.  Nobody points out that, from the start, we've sent troops into Iraq unarmed.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)

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