Notes from Winter Soldier on the Hill, part one

“I joined the military to kill Iraqi people,” Kristofer Goldsmith said softly in a Congressional hearing room on Thursday.

The slim young veteran, his Mohawk pulled back from his head in a half-braid, kept his eyes focused forward as news photographers scurried under the table at which he sat, snapping photographs as he continued: ” I remember on September 12, 2001, looking up at the TV screen as a 16-year-old boy, saying we should use biological weapons and eliminate the threat in the Middle East.”

Goldsmith had already shown slides of himself as a ten-year-old Boy Scout who had always wanted to join the military, but soon he had segued to a succession of images of what he had witnessed in Iraq, from “presence patrols” designed to intimidate to an image of a man with smashed face. His last few images displayed a wall with an Arabic inscription: Welcome America to the second Vietnam War.

Goldsmith was only one of ten veterans testifying before the House Progressive Caucus, designed to give legislators a taste of last March’s Winter Soldier testimony. At the event, billed as Winter Soldier on the Hill (C-SPAN video at the top link here), ten members faced the caucus, which on budget day amounted mostly to a trio of antiwar women Democrats: Lynn Woolsey, Diane Watson, and Sheila Jackson Lee.

It was May 15 — International Conscientious Objector Day, marked by Congress mostly in reverse. A Foreign Affairs Committee briefing on “Empowering the Soldier Through Technology” featured flashy brochures on the newest Stryker vehicle. Walking through the first floor of the Rayburn Office Building, I was almost blinded by the ribbons and medals on the brass showing off the new hardware.

But upstairs, soldiers who had seen combat far more recently were honoring both the day, even if they weren’t themselves CO’s, and their own pledge upon enlistment to protect the Constitution.

I sat behind the testimonial table, where the row of dark suits most had chosen gave the event a somber feel, like kaddish or a memorial. And their testimonies, describing alleged war crimes, felt similarly somber, blaming equally their own participation, command neglect, and Congressional endorsement of the occupation.

Jason Lemieux — a sweet-faced young blond whose slight build belies his strength — described “firefights in which the rules of engagement were routinely ignored.” “Unit loyalty and cameraderie,” he said, combined with “an emphasis on minimizing short term casualties,” to create an atmosphere in which troops were authorized “on numerous occasions, to shoot any Iraqi that seems suspicious,” and were told that “the command will take care of you.” (Such emphasis on taking care of one another, sometimes overriding concern for civilians, perhaps the dark side of the terribly romantic, Achilles-Patroclus soldier-bond described in such detail by Jonathan Shay.)

When Lemieux submitted incident reports showing “use of excessive force,” he said, commands either downplayed them or, in one case, actually altered the numbers.

In Tal Afar, now praised by President Bush as a great Army success, “ more innocent civilians were injured and killed by Americans than by the enemy,” said Army scout Scott Ewing, his face blank. Ewing described arriving at homes in Tal Afar that had just been blasted by Apache helicopters: “One little boy pointed to his chest,” he said. “We tried to bandage their wounds,” he said softly.

Ewing also showed a slide of a trashed home, from a day when “thousands of of soldiers were ordered to search aggressively” for weapons. Following orders, the troops kicked down doors, smashed computers, and ripped bedsheets. (In the back of the room Aaron Glantz, reporting for Democracy Now, remarked: “It looks like there’s been an armed robbery.”) Overall, said Ewing, “trashing people’s homes did not win us friends in Tal Afar.”

Part of what made this all possible, the vets said, was racism/dehumanization: a previous generation’s “gook” become “hajji,” and thus other and expendable. Geoffrey Millard, of IVAW’s D.C. chapter, showed a slide of a sedan blasted into fragments at a checkpoint; his commander, he said, had brushed it off, saying: “if these fucking hajjis learned to drive that wouldn’t happen.” He has tried, he added, to reason with his peers, for whom “KBR employees who made our food, they became hajjis.. I actually heard a guy say, I’m going over to that hajji shop to get a hajji DVD from these hajjis.” It was hard, he said, to get soldiers to see why that was wrong.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about the soldiers’ awareness of their own trauma, about the committee’s response to all this, and just a few of my own reflections. But right now, I’m haunted by the opening sentence of Millard’s statement, which feels a little like a warning of what could continue indefinitely.

“In Iraq, a year becomes a month, a month becomes a day that repeats over and over and over,” Millard said.

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2 responses to “Notes from Winter Soldier on the Hill, part one

  1. It’s so hard to hold in one’s mind, the day to day life we’re having here, just going about our business, pursing our interests, and whatis going on in the rest of the world. Thank you again for continuing to bring this front and center.

  2. chrislombardi

    yeah, it was especially draining to be there and get my other stuff done. Thanks for stopping by and hearing these guys’ story – perhaps the most important one out there.

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