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Iraq vets call for Winter Soldier investigation

Published Jan 17, 2008 1:36 AM

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) has announced plans for “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan,” from March 13 to 16. The event “will assemble the largest gathering of U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in history, as well as Iraqi and Afghan survivors,” IVAW says, “to offer first-hand, eyewitness accounts to tell the truth about these occupations—their impact on the troops, their families,” the United States “and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

IVAW is asking the larger anti-war movement to call no national mobilizations and no local protests or civil disobedience actions in Washington, D.C., on that long weekend. “IVAW would support any events that do not interfere with the Winter Soldier hearings, our strategy, or goals,” they said. “We would encourage our members to continue participating in events of the larger movement to end the occupation of Iraq, as we acknowledge both the significance and the necessity of such actions.”

Thomas Paine, a writer and political activist who promoted the revolution for U.S. independence from Britain in the 18th century, said winter soldiers are those who stand up even in the most difficult hours of struggle. “With this spirit in mind,” IVAW says, “our members are standing up to make their experiences available to all who are concerned about the direction of our country.”

This is the second Winter Soldier investigation: in 1971, members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) gathered in Detroit to share their stories. Atrocities like the My Lai massacre had ignited popular opposition to the war, but political and military leaders insisted that such crimes were isolated exceptions. The members of VVAW testified at that time on the systematic brutality they had seen visited upon the people of Vietnam.

“Over 30 years later,” IVAW says, “we find ourselves faced with a new war, but the lies are the same. Once again, [U.S.] troops are sinking into an increasingly bloody occupation. Once again, war crimes in places like Haditha, Fallujah and Abu Ghraib have turned the public against the war. Once again, politicians and generals are blaming ‘a few bad apples’ instead of examining the military policies that have destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Support needed

IVAW wants as many people as possible to attend the event. It is planning to provide live broadcasting of the sessions for those who cannot hear the testimony firsthand. “We have been inspired by the tremendous support the movement has shown us,” IVAW says. “We believe the success of Winter Soldier will ultimately depend on the support of our allies and the hard work of our members.”

Workers World spoke with IVAW National Board members Camilo Mejia and Margaret Stevens about the event and other aspects of the organization’s work.

Mejia spent nine months in military prison from May 2004 to February 2005 for refusing to return to Iraq after his first tour of duty there. He has been speaking and organizing since his release. He was chosen to chair the IVAW National Board at its conference last August. He told WW the organization is growing fast—from about 500 in August to more than 700 now, with members in 48 states, Washington, D.C., Canada, and on numerous bases both here and overseas, including Iraq.

Commenting on the recent mutiny by a platoon of soldiers in Iraq, Mejia said this type of resistance is increasingly common there. “I refused a mission once,” he said. “We had watched several of our comrades be killed and wounded. I said no—as squad leader—that I would not allow my guys to be used as bait for some colonel to make general.”

Margaret Stevens, who is IVAW’s National Board treasurer, said, “My stint in the anti-war movement began before the official invasion was declared in 2003. As a member of the New Jersey Army National Guard from 1997 to 2004, I counted myself among the soldiers who questioned the goals, values and actions of the U.S. military even during times of so-called peace.”

A resident of Newark, N.J., and a professor at Essex Community College, Stevens says, “We need to develop a strong voice in the northern New Jersey region. Until we can link the fight against imperialist war overseas to the fight against racism and sexism in the U.S., we are missing the point.”

Stevens told WW last August that Mejia’s political statement at the IVAW convention “was that we need to look at the root of the problem—not just the war but the capitalist system. People responded positively to this.” She said the northern New Jersey chapter of IVAW, which had its first meetings in December, has gotten off to a strong start. More than 40 people attended the chapter’s first holiday party, most of them veterans, but also from Military Families Speak Out, the People’s Organization for Progress of Jersey City, and others.

The IVAW, Stevens said, “will have a three-pronged approach: truth in recruiting; mobilization of active duty soldiers; defending war resisters.” There is rich detail on each of these initiatives, as well as ways to help build the Winter Soldier activity, on the group’s Web site: www.ivaw.org.