Thirty-six years ago, more than 100 Vietnam veterans gathered in Detroit to describe and expose war crimes perpetrated by themselves and their fellow soldiers. The purpose of the 1971 event, dubbed the "Winter Soldier Investigation" and organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, was to show that heinous incidents such as the My Lai massacre were not anomalous tragedies, but regular costs of war.
The event got minimal media coverage at the time. In 2005 — as the country grappled again with an unpopular war and reports of scattered atrocities taking place in the theater — there was a resurgence of interest when Winter Soldier, a documentary, was re-released at small theaters nationwide.
Now, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) will restage the exposé, hopefully with more public awareness, at its Winter Soldier 2008, scheduled to take place in March of next year at the University of Maryland (a good bit closer to Washington, DC, than Detroit). Organizers are arranging appearances by more than 100 Iraq and Afghanistan vets, who will testify that abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib prison are not isolated incidents, but extreme examples of widespread misconduct. Female veterans will also be on hand to talk about all-too-frequent internal incidents of sexual misconduct and harassment.
“IVAW felt like it’s time to expose these lies, to dispel the ‘bad-apples’ myth,” says Perry O’Brien, a 25-year-old army veteran from Peaks Island, who served in Afghanistan in 2003, and who is the testimonial team leader for IVAW.
O’Brien, who has since been discharged from the army as a conscientious objector, will talk about the practice of Americans using Afghan corpses for medical purposes — something he didn’t participate in firsthand, but which he claims to have witnessed in a clinic in Kandahar. He is also helping to coordinate legal and mental-health support for those who agree to testify.
“They’re going to be discussing really, really, difficult things that most of us don’t even discuss among ourselves, much less to the general public,” O’Brien says on the phone from Ithaca, New York, where he is in his last year at Cornell University.
To the extent possible, IVAW will attempt to corroborate veterans’ testimony, and there will be some video and photographic evidence at the event, according to O’Brien. (Decades after the original Winter Soldier Investigation, some veterans came forward claiming that they had lied in their statements, and had been coerced into testifying falsely.)