During the recent debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, the military situation in Iraq was defined as a victory by Senator McCain. This is despite the fact that close to one hundred US soldiers and more than fifteen hundred Iraqis have died there in the past four months, while the Pentagon stated recently that Iraq "remains locked in conflict." Meanwhile, the occupation of Afghanistan remains a cause for concern, with both candidates pledging to send more troops into the country, pacify Afghanistan and destroy the insurgency and Al Queda. Neither candidate expressed much (if any) concern for the huge numbers of Iraqi and Afghani casualties or for the hundred or more members of the US military have died in these conflicts over the past four months. Instead, they spoke about the sacrifice they had made without acknowledging not only whether or not the so-called sacrifice was worth it, but if the blood and death of war was even the best way to accomplish the goals desired by Washington. Naurally, neither candidate seriously questioned the goals themselves.
Those goals as explained by the politicians and generals have changed as the occupations dragged on. Most recently, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quoted as saying leaving these countries "would be a disastrous blow to our credibility, both among our friends and allies and among potential adversaries." At other times, the reasons for the occupations have included establishing democracy, fighting Al Queda, stopping ethnic violence and finding weapons of mass destruction. Of course, underlying the stated goals are more fundamental ones that have to do with US hegemony and the desire to expand that hegemony.
A recent book published by Haymarket Books of Chicago provides the interested reader with the real reasons for the occupations. This book, titled Winter Soldier: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations is a collection of testimonies from military veterans of these operations and local civilians in the middle of them. The tales told herein are not for the faint of heart. They represent the best of the US military and the worst. Sexual harassment, murders, wanton destruction, macabre joking about civilian deaths and military mistakes resonate through the stories here. Simultaneously, the fact that the men and women that appeared in public to describe what they had done and seen as participants in these military actions provides hope that there are many individuals whose conscience does not allow them to justify the death and destruction done in the name of the US. In this way, their strength is considerably greater than those who sit stateside and wish the wars would just go away.
The hearings, which took place in March 2008, were followed by testimony before a Congressional committee. Except for some prowar organizations, the reception to the veterans' effort was mostly supportive. The US mainstream media barely covered the event, but this was not much of a surprise. As far as those who run that media, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are old news. Furthermore, since the government has no intention of ending those adventures, they are as much a fait accompli as poverty and domestic abuse. Therefore , they don't rate daily coverage in a media more concerned with Paris Hilton's weekends in jail.
For those who don't know the history, the aforementioned hearings were based on a similar set of hearings held in 1971 by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). These hearings probably received less attention from the mainstream media at the time than the IVAW hearings did. Nonetheless, they were the first time that veterans of the US military spoke openly to an international audience about what they had seen and done in the jungles of Vietnam while serving in the US military. I only heard about the 1971 hearings via US underground newspapers and through GIs I knew in Germany that worked on the FTA Heidelberg underground rag. VVAW went on to become a historical example to military members ever since. The story of their organization's founding, actions, growth and internal struggles is the subject of another book just republished by Haymarket: Winter Soldiers: An Oral History of the VVAW. I read this book when it first came out in 1997 and was impressed by its breadth and detail. As I re-read it this past week, I was awestruck at how well the author Richard Stacewicz covered and presented the multitude of political and personal nuances that were present in the organization. Although I worked and hung out with VVAW members in Maryland in 1974 and 1975, there is information here that I was completely unaware of. Besides this, the explanations provided by the recollections written down here is useful today, as well. Indeed, as the IVAW matures, the internal struggles of the VVAW can be instructive.
There is an ongoing discussion within the essentially moribund antiwar movement of today and among antiwar veterans themselves regarding the roles vets should play in rebuilding that movement. In a movement whose politics run from libertarian to socialist and beyond, this question can be a contentious one. However, as Stacewicz's book proves, the role of an antiwar veteran's organization can be crucial to ending wars, despite (or perhaps because of) a wide variety of political viewpoints within the organization. As the US readies itself for a new president and Congress, the most essential thing for antiwar veterans and their civilian counterparts is to be ready to do whatever is necessary to end the wars Washington is currently engaged in.
Both of these books are about Washington's wars and the men and women sent to fight them. The stories in each represent the realizations arrived at by many of those men and women that what they are doing is wrong. Too many civilian residents of the US will ignore these stories, thereby avoiding any sense of a need to stop the death and destruction taking place in their name. If you read them, pass them on. Then find some way to act on the knowledge you have gained.