A New Coalition

Stephanie Fail

About a month and a half ago, members of the UMass Boston Anti-War Coalition organized an event that presented a live stream from Washington D.C. of the recent “Winter Soldier” hearings by the Iraq Veterans Against the War. On Thursday, May 8th, at 12 and 2:30 P.M., the Coalition is partnering again with IVAW to host a roundtable discussion at UMB that will show clips of the testimonies from the hearings in D.C. and include insight from local veterans and discussion. This event will take place on the 3rd floor terrace of the Campus Center.

IVAW is a non-profit organization founded in 2004, consisting of over 1,000 members that work to unite troops to voice their opinion that the Iraq War is an “unjust, illegal and unwinnable occupation”. IVAW.org calls for “Immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces in Iraq; Reparations for the human and structural damages Iraq has suffered, and stopping the corporate pillaging of Iraq so that their people can control their own lives and future; and Full benefits, adequate healthcare (including mental health), and other supports for returning servicemen and women”.

This is not the first Winter Soldier Investigation. Back in 1971, during the heat of the Vietnam War, many veterans returned home to a nation that spit on them for their service to this country. There were troops who had been in combat and had experiences that caused them to conclude that the conflict in Vietnam was not in the best interests of the American or Vietnamese people. As a result, Vietnam Veterans Against the War formed and recorded testimonies of what they had seen. They deemed themselves “Winter Soldiers”, a term derived from Thomas Paine’s remarks about the “Sunshine Patriots” and “Summertime Soldiers” that abandoned their country at Valley Forge due to tough conditions.

Many soldiers were being court marshaled for murder. They felt that responsibility for the failure of the Vietnam War was not merely in the hands of those welding the guns but of everyone involved in the war, including the President. Donald Dzagulones, during the Vietnam “Winter Soldier” Event of 1971, remarked: “We gathered not to sensationalize our service but to decry the travesty that was Lt. William Calley’s trial for the My Lai Massacre. The U.S. had established the principle of culpability with the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis. Following those principles, we held that if Calley were responsible, so were his superiors up the chain of command — even to the President. The causes of My Lai and the brutality of the Vietnam War were rooted in the policies of our government as executed by our military commanders.”

The geography and names may be different, but for this generation’s hearings, the tone was the same. IVAW member Selena Coppa summarizes her stance: “The politicians and the generals have continued these occupations to the point of breaking our soldiers and destroying our military. As veterans and as patriots, many of us feel we must speak out about our experiences in order to change current policies and bring honor and dignity back to our military and our country.”

As a publicly funded university, UMass Boston has a higher population of veterans than most local colleges due to specialized tuition reimbursement, like the G.I. Bill, for those who have served our country. Of late, the UMB Anti-War Coalition and some of these veterans have been working together to promote the withdrawal of the U.S. from Iraq.

The Winter Soldier Testimonies offer a venue with credibility and legal protection for those who no longer support the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The first live presentation of the event in D.C. included testimonies from veterans and several scholars, journalists, and activists. Back in March, the UMass Anti-War Coalition drew an equally varied crowd to the live stream of the talks. There were veterans of the Iraq and Gulf War, students involved in the coalition, local Bostonians from activist groups, a man who looked eerily like Rip Van Winkle who came to eat a sandwich and nap in the back, and several stragglers.

On May 8th, by hosting a specific event that encourages a roundtable discussion, the Coalition is aspiring to capitalize on peoples’ interest and draw even more participants to get involved with the local peace movement while giving local veterans a venue to voice their accounts to those paying attention, with no middle-man in between. For those interested in viewing the accounts of the D.C. soldiers they remain up in their entirety on the Iraq Veterans Against the War website (www.ivaw.org) for free streaming.

A UMB Winter Soldier: What follows is an account of a student at UMass Boston who is currently an active duty sergeant in the Massachusetts Army Reserve. By request, this veteran would like to remain anonymous. X, to whom this interview will refer, spent 10 months in Baghdad and was kind enough to speak regarding the realities of combat in Iraq.

Fail: What changed your support of the Iraq war? Were you against both wars? Also I am curious about what you think about the Rules of Engagement and your perception of them after spending time in Iraq. The main tenet of the IVAW is that the wars are on false terms and illegal.

X: Quite frankly, I never supported it from the very start. Umm, is this the stuff that IVAW is concerned about? The rules of engagement? Interesting… I can agree with the Iraq war being on false terms, since al Qaeda was in Afghanistan. That was crap. In regards to the RoE, I can only speak from personal experience and in my opinion they were fairly strict. Of course you have squads that will break the RoE and then not report serious incidents. The “old boy” routine came into play pretty often. But the RoE put in place by the CENTCOM was pretty stringent if I remember correctly.

Fail: Do you recall the basics of those RoE?

X: You had to identify where the contact was coming from before engaging a target. If you couldn’t do that, you were supposed to break contact by driving as fast as possible out of the area. Maybe some smoke for concealment if possible. I don’t know what they did on foot patrols, though. During convoys, if a civilian vehicle came too close, the RoE were to first hold up your fist (that meant stop). If that didn’t work, you were supposed to raise your weapon and yell. If that didn’t work, and there was an obvious threat, then you could fire at them. But everyone I knew who did that got in trouble. So no one did it. Or they did it and all agreed not to say anything. Everyone’s just trying to cover their own ass over there, so they can make it back home to their families.

Fail: What I understood from IVAW was that the RoE were often ignored.

X: No, there were what we call “cowboys”. Bragged about being attacked and what not. Never witnessed anything myself besides that though. And no, where I was if the RoE were ignored, you’d get court marshaled. As a side note, when you’re there, it can be very scary the entire time outside the wire. You have no idea who’s trying to kill you. Everyone is on edge. The Army hasn’t made us into cold-blooded killers. But when you get right down to it, everyone has the same agenda: to keep themselves and each other alive, and to not be overly concerned about who gets hurt in the process. Because like I said, you never know who’s out to kill you.

Fail: Like going through procedure was frowned upon as too risky in the kill or be killed equation?

X: Oh no, I meant no one actually fired real shots. (I’m assuming it still happened, but only in the squads where the old boy routine was in place). For example, one day intel reports came down that said to watch out for VBIEDS disguised as hay trucks. During a convoy that day, a hay truck got too close to the vehicle my friend was gunning in. He went through all the steps, but the truck didn’t back up. So he shot at the driver. Didn’t kill him, but got put on probation for 2 weeks and had to do a bunch of shit work. He was pretty torn up over it. I can only speak from personal experience and observance, of course. I don’t mean to offend anyone that has had a different experience with this.