Who Wants to Know What a Human Heart Looks Like?

Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan

Winter Soldier Hearings
By Aaron Glantz

10/03/08 “ICH” — – Get ready for the horrible, honest reality of the American occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan like you haven’t heard it before. For four days, from March 13 through March 16, hundreds of U.S. veterans of the two wars will descend on Washington and testify in the “Winter Soldier” hearings about what they really did while they were serving their country in Iraq. And their experiences aren’t pretty.

The event is inspired by the Winter Solider tribunal held in 1971 by Vietnam War vets, including John Kerry. The name comes from a quote from Thomas Paine, the revolutionary who rallied George Washington’s troops at Valley Forge, saying: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

Paine was trying to keep Washington’s army from deserting in the face of a bitter winter and mounting defeats at the hands of the British. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War say the same type of courage is needed to confront the evils unleashed by the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lawless Atmosphere

“The problem that we face in Iraq is that policymakers in leadership have set a precedent of lawlessness where we don’t abide by the rule of law, we don’t respect international treaties, argued former U.S. Army Sergeant Logan Laituri, who served a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 before being discharged as a conscientious objector. “So when that atmosphere exists it lends itself to criminal activity.”

Laituri explained that precedent of lawlessness makes itself felt in the rules of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines. When he was stationed in Samarra, for example, he said one of his fellow soldiers shot an unarmed man while he walked down the street.

“The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime as you might call it because the rules of engagement were very clear that no one was supposed to be walking down the street,” Laituri said. “But I have a problem with that. You can’t tell a family to leave everything they know so you can bomb the shit out of their house or their city. So while he definitely has protection under the law, I don’t think that legitimates that type of violence.”

Not Just Numbers

Aaron Hughes, a former member of the Illinois National Guard who spent a year running convoys in Iraq, is getting involved too. “We’re trying to create a space for veterans to speak out and change the rhetoric around the war,” he said. “There are human beings on both sides. There are not just numbers. That’s what missing in our culture.”

Hughes grew up in a basement apartment in Chicago and joined the National Guard when he saw how successfully it provided relief during heavy flooding on the Mississippi River.

But after being sent to Iraq, he came to see the military in a different way. An art student at the University of Illinois at the time he was called up, Hughes went back over the photos he took while deployed in Iraq and altered them in an “attempt to interpret the posture assumed as a soldier/tourist in the surreal space of Iraq.” Hughes’ work was been shown at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago.

“I think it’s wrong, looking back at it,” he said. “How can you not perceive it as a step away from your humanity? They automatically start isolating you. They tell you your girlfriend or your husband is not going to be there. They tell you not to trust anyone but the military and they really start fostering that as your sole relationship in life.”

Equally Criminal Wars

The veterans also want to stress the similarities between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The exact same units that are getting the exact same training and the exact same orders are getting sent to both Iraq and Afghanistan,” explained Perry O’Brien, a former U.S. Army Medic who became a conscientious objector after his tour in Afghanistan. “What we’re seeing is a lot of similarities between practices in both countries and both are equally criminal.”

O’Brien even witnessed the abuse of dead bodies during his tour. “When a patient would die, we would hear over the PA system an announcement through the clinic saying ‘Who wants to learn how to do a chest tube?’ or ‘Who wants to know what a human heart looks like?,’” he said. “Rather than giving the proper treatment of the dead, the body would become a cadaver for medical practice with no consent from the victim.”

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