Winter Soldiers for Peace: The South-Central Conference

By Greg Moses

Dissident Voice / The Rag Blog / CounterPunch

Austin TX — In the stone-walled sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church, three hundred faithful settle into pews as the dean of Austin peace activism, Fran Hanlon, previews how the rest of the weekend schedule has been planned for this Winter Soldier event.

Fran’s partner at the podium, Doug Zachary, is looking pleased already. The house is full. The program is printed. The act is together. A banner hanging large to stage left says “Winter Soldier” and Zachary with his whitening beard, angle-bent hat, and Palestinian scarf, is looking like a perfected instance of the eternal type.

Zachary has been a Winter Soldier for 37 years. In 1970 he won an honorable discharge after convincing the Marine Corps that he took the words of Jesus seriously. In 1971, as Zachary was seeking alternative paths through Texas, the Winter Soldier Movement was born in Detroit where 109 veterans of the War on Viet Nam turned out the truth of what they’d done as war criminals in a criminal war. Not many years later, of course, that war was ended.

After three more decades of aggressions upon foreign soils, brigades of Veterans for Peace (VFP) and Vietnam Veterans against the War (VVAW) have been joined by Iraq Veterans against the War (IVAW). Testimonies today from this new generation of “boots on the ground veterans” will carry echoes blown in from Vietnam and Detroit ’71.

A Winter Soldier, says Zachary, is “loyal, steadfast, faithful, resolute, conscientious, scrupulous, and unafraid of painstaking work.” On this last day of February, 2009, with north winds howling out back along San Jacinto Boulevard, Zachary is here to declare that the movement– in these “times that try men’s souls”–shall not quit resisting the ongoing “imperialist, racist, and anti-democratic” wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.

Zachary yields the podium to the chaplain of the Austin IVAW, Hart Viges, who will be moderating the first panel of speakers. Viges looks like a lanky pastor with his trimmed hair, spectacles, dark blazer, white shirt, and blue jeans, not to mention the mighty large cross hanging on the wall behind him.

“I’d like to give a quote from Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus)” says Viges. “He said, ‘Blessed are the ones who have undergone ordeals, for they have entered into life’.” After this refreshing translation of a beatitude the IVAW chaplain reminds us that even the things we will hear today can be transcended.

They Built Hanging Gardens without Strange Fruit

First to speak today is Dr. Dahlia S. Wasfi, M.D. whose grandparents include a Sunni Muslim, a Shia Muslim, and two Holocaust Jews. She therefore begins her story with a memory of the Abraham who once upon a time walked with Allah in Iraq. Dr. Wasfi’s cousins will sometimes boast that they walk the same ground as Abraham, but it has been hard ground lately. There was an 8-year war with Iran, a 42-day bombing of the First Gulf War, and of course the Shock and Awe campaign of 2003. In such a land it would be miraculous not to be living out some disorder of post-traumatic stress.

A film clip pulls us into the streets of Fallujah where two children carry small bags to a cemetery. A tiny grave marks the burial of a child’s arm. A grown man weeps. Another declares that “our enemy” is anyone who had any part in these killings. Clicking between slides, Dr. Wasfi shows us two more children from Iraq and Philadelphia joined together through an extended family that spans half the world and several religions. Shouldn’t we be working to build a world where these children can enjoy a common future of peace and prosperity?

Consider the example of Babylon. Dr. Wasfi presents a slide of what the Hanging Gardens must have looked like when they counted among the Seven Wonders. Do we seriously think that such a people from such a land actually need our outside assistance to figure out how to be great or to do great things? Well there is one thing the Iraqi people could use that we could give them, says Dr. Wasfi, and that is immediate and unconditional withdrawal.

HUMINT Unit

Winter Soldier testimony begins with Ronn Cantu, who steps to the podium with trim dark hair, a bare shadow of beard and mustache, dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt that identifies him as an Iraq Veteran Against the War. In 2003, he believed so strongly in “the war on terrorism” that he re-joined the Army after two years out. The Army sent him to Iraq once, then twice. So 2007 found him back in Iraq.

“During my second tour I served as a human intelligence collector,” says Cantu, looking over his notes. “A lot of people know that as an interrogator, but interrogation is only half of what a HUMINT DIR does. The other half is source operations where we look for Iraqi citizens to give us information willingly and thereby become sources.”

Cantu explains the method of “dual source reporting” which requires two written statements before a suspect can be detained. The database assigns each report a number, but the number does not reveal whether a second report comes from a second source. Two reports from a single source could therefore qualify as “dual source reporting.” Database numbers could also be entered without any real sources behind them.

One of his first assignments was to help round up four members of an IED cell. It seemed like a “success” but Cantu wondered: “Does a flock disperse when you detain the shepherd?” As a HUMINT operator, Cantu was working for the “new body count,” and under these circumstances his unit could do what’s ethical or please the masters. “We did the latter.”

From questionable database practices that could barely count to two, the operation soon degraded into detain first, dual source later. From one suspected “al Qaeda” mosque Cantu’s unit detained every male and then looked for reasons to keep them. Thirteen qualified.

“Then the worst thing happened,” said Cantu. “We accidentally caught somebody big.” Congratulations came sliding down the command chain. What was there to do but to repeat the whole method next week. By this time the people in the neighborhood were convinced that the Army had declared war against Islam. To show how that wasn’t true, the Army got the Iraqi police to handle the next mosque roundup. Since the neighborhood was Sunni and the police were Shia, the operation worked perfectly to divide and conquer.

When detainees were sent to confinement with boot-shaped bruises, missing teeth, or broken arms, military handlers got nervous and started rejecting them. Once again, Iraqi police could help with backup detention facilities. But when Cantu attempted to report questionable detention practices on the basis of seeing a man with an eye swollen shut he was asked: “Did you see him being tortured?” What he heard was: “if you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.” When a Warrant Officer assured Cantu that he did not have to carry out duties he considered to be illegal and discomforting, he began to pull away.

Gitmo Grand Opening

Brandon Neely was born into a military family in Georgia and he turned to the military when he reached working age in Texas. He still keeps a military haircut that he wears today with his IVAW t-shirt. Like Cantu’s before him, Neely’s confessions have been made in previous venues. He opens by explaining how military guards sent to the Guantanamo Bay prison were never trained in the Geneva Conventions because they were taught that Gitmo was an exceptional place where the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply.

We’ve seen pictures of Gitmo prisoners arriving at Camp X-Ray, dressed in bright orange jumpsuits, knit orange caps, surgical masks, goggles, earmuffs, and gloves; hands strapped together. What we didn’t see was the first guy who hopped off the bus on one leg as he was screamed at to move it. Nor did we see how after he had hopped so many yards someone bothered to toss from the bus his prosthetic leg.

We’ve seen the cruel pictures from Iraq of naked prisoners piled on top of each other, but we haven’t seen the pileup that Neely describes when a bunch of Gitmo guards jumped on top of a prisoner who called one of them a bitch.

And we’ve heard the hype about the Gitmo prisoners being certified homicidal maniacs, but we haven’t heard how the first prisoner that Neely took charge of was trembling with all his might under a fear of everything he expected to experience when ordered to kneel. He was slow to get into that position because he believed it would be his last. What Neely reflexively took to be killer resistance was only one mortal’s attempt to steal an extra breath from this life, sucking it down from behind a surgical mask that he was convinced he would never be able to remove. From their separate places across the globe, two distraught men were ordered to collide at Gitmo, each brainwashed into thinking that he was meeting a killer of instant resort.

Wake Up Call

“He knew how to sleep as only the innocent and the dead could dig,” says Rooster Romriell, opening his testimony with a poem made from fragments of razor-edged memories. Long hair covering his right ear is mismatched by a buzz cut on the left side, as if to say once you get that military cut, it can never be outgrown. His black t-shirt declares an imperative: “Support GI Resistance.”

Rooster transports the sanctuary to a home in Sadr City where an American squad has just discovered an AK-47, which is a legal weapon to keep at home. We watch horrified as “an old woman with an infant in her arms” falls to the ground “weeping inconsolably” as two shots ring out. The bullets crash through an innocent man’s face. With a quivering chin, Rooster tells us that the woman still screams in his head at night when he’s trying to sleep.

Then comes the dump truck. American troops fire upon it and watch it burn. A man comes “waving a white cloth and yelling ‘baby, baby,’ trying to tell us that we were destroying nothing more than children and garbage.” Rooster’s flesh quivers again with the pain of a conscience that dares him not to cry on the spot. He exhales into the sanctuary and we barely breathe. He has more stories to tell.

“Obama claims that he wants to withdraw the troops from Iraq—at least he did prior to gaining the presidency—all the while saying that Iran is a constant threat, allowing troops to be increased in Afghanistan, turning his sights on Russia, claiming they were delivering nukes to the terrorists, and now he’s confronting China for currency manipulation and monetary policy. He’s calling for a civilian security force and mandatory service. We cannot allow a blind eye to be turned on these things. Obama is no friend to the veteran.” As Rooster withdraws from the podium, Cantu offers a handshake.

‘Bring the Troops Home Now’

“I’m a little overwhelmed by some of the testimony that’s been shared with us today, as I imagine many of you are,” says the next speaker. Greg Foster is president of the Austin IVAW. He is a panelist during this part of the program. Later he will serve as moderator. His black t-shirt bears a familiar script: “We the People.” Picking up the general theme of the day, Foster declares that Winter Soldiers are responsible citizens.

“We know the reality of the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Foster. The testimonies may be difficult to speak and difficult to hear, but the truth is important and it should be shared. The US owes compensation and reparations for damage done on foreign soil, but the country also needs to provide full benefits and adequate health care to “soldiers and Marines.”

Foster, like Rooster, spent time in Sadr City. He recalls fighting street by street to secure a zone of operation, then watching burned-out awnings replaced with fresh cloth. “I saw Sadr City slowly start to rebuild itself.” After his unit was transferred out, the new unit had to start all over again with another street-by-street battle to reassert the “hegemony” of American power. Says Foster: “When I say bring the troops home now, it’s not a slogan.”

The FOBulous Life

After a crowded and chattering intermission in the basement Fellowship Hall, the afternoon program resumes with two videos by Casey J. Porter. As far as Porter was concerned, one tour of duty in Iraq would have been enough. After returning from his first year in Iraq he joined the IVAW in 2007. Yet that same year he was “stop-lossed”– instead of getting out on schedule he was ordered back to Iraq. This time around, Porter posts short anti-war videos to his YouTube channel.

The first Porter film today is “The Deployment Game: Livin’ FOBulous,” a satirical presentation of Camp Taji, a forward operating base (FOB) north of Baghdad that boasts 29,000 square feet (count ‘em) of retail space, complete with comfort foods from back home (listed in order of appearance): Subway, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Cinnabon, and Taco Bell.

Cut to a car salesman seated behind a laptop, discussing the price of a Mustang GT fully loaded with leathers, then to a segment about KBR–the corporation that announced 2007 revenues of $8.7 billion, down a hundred million dollars from 2006 because of “lower Iraq-related activities in the Government and Infrastructure business unit.” From a faucet in Iraq we watch a dingy yellow liquid fall into a sink and down a drain. If it’s not a picture of the clean water KBR is supposed to be providing, then it’s a perfect image of something.

“It’s going to a take lot of stuff to kind of fix this bruise that we put on the whole earth,” says a fully jacketed combat soldier in the Porter film “Deconstructed.” A hand-held camera follows soldiers through a home raid, lingers over a twig that a soldier uses to poke through human remains, records passing scenes of Iraqi life as viewed from a moving patrol vehicle, and occasionally shows a tender moment between an American GI and an Iraqi child. “Going out into these neighborhoods and really helping to reconstruct, we’re not you know,” says the GI. “I don’t see that happening. I don’t see a true reason for us being here.” The video has racked up 46,000 confirmed views.

A Woman in the War System

After “Deconstructed” comes an awkward pause, as if the fog of war leaked into the sanctuary upon images of IED dust. Greg Foster gets things back on track by introducing the first speaker of the second panel, Navy veteran Marie Combs. Although Combs has been featured at Winter Soldier events before, this is her first appearance since leaving the Navy two weeks ago. As a military translator, her experience begins at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where she learns how women in the military are treated to health care. At every visit to the doctor every woman is asked to take a pregnancy test. Apparently when it comes to women, pregnancy is the only “medical condition” that the system is prepared to see.

At a deployment base near Iraq, there is one woman physician, but she is frequently sent away on the medevac transport with women in labor. And wherever they are taken, stories come back that women are made to walk on days when they should qualify for transport, such as when they’ve just had a c-section or when they are visiting the hospital to nurse their infants. If war is something only real men do, then women soldiers also have war done to them, even though they wear the war’s uniform. Combs herself suffered from depression after the birth of her daughter, nor was it easy to find help for that.

“The more wars we start, the more countries we invade, it’s breaking all of us down,” warns Combs. She recalls a newscast where the war in Iraq was dubbed a “detour” that would soon be finished on our way back to a fresh start in Afghanistan. But how can we start this kind of thing again? “It’s hard to speak,” says Combs, “when nobody is listening. No one’s paying attention to war.” Now that Combs puts it that way, a kind of coherence emerges. Wherever terms of power are deployed by real men, the voice of peace counts precisely as the voice of a woman.

The Art of Peace

“I’d really like to speak about the strategies that I feel would really bring an end to this war quicker,” says Austin IVAW Chaplain Hart Viges, who has changed roles from moderator to panelist. “So I look to peace and try to find my definition of peace, and the best thing I can come up with (and I think there is influence from other sources) is that peace is conflict without violence. In this life that we live we cannot escape from conflict or the rubbing of parts or ideas. This is our life and it is the struggle. Buddha says that life is suffering, then so be it. So I go to war,” says Chaplain Viges, holding up a book. “Sun Tzu, The Art of War–this is a very important book that every peace activist should read and soak in. It may sound confusing, but really the same strategies that we apply to war can be applied to peace.”

Viges takes special interest in Sun Tzu’s advice that victory in war depends upon seizing something that the enemy holds dear. And so what do the makers of war need? They need people and money. But “if there’s no one to pull a trigger and if they don’t have any money to spend on a trigger they cannot make war.”

Strategy number one for the art of peace: deprive the warmakers of people. To do his part, Viges hangs out where young soldiers can be talked to. He also helps to staff a local GI Rights Hotline. Viges declares that there is no better satisfaction than taking calls from people with stress in their voices. They have been told they cannot say no to military service. When they are advised how to remove themselves from that matrix, Viges can hear their voices change from stress to relief. In hearing that change in voice, Viges gets the best feeling.

Viges also works with the local counter-recruitment group, Nonmilitary Options for Youth, where he takes credit for deterring ten young people from signing up for military service. “That’s a body count I can live with,” he smiles. Already, the local group has won a public complaint in the form of a newspaper quote from military recruiters. If local recruiters can feel the impact of a half-dozen organizers working on a shoestring, what would happen with a steady budget and expanded staff?

Strategy number two: take away the warmakers’ money. According to the current pie chart at WarResisters.Org more than half of our federal tax payments in 2008 will help to fund wars past and present. “And since I’ve been downrange,” says Viges, “I know what those dollars turn into. They turn into real bullets and real bombs that kill real people.” The Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act would allow citizens to opt out of war spending as a matter of conscience. During the last session of Congress, legendary peacemaker John Lewis (D-GA) was able to gather more than 40 co-sponsors for the bill. Watch for the bill to come up again this session, then “saturate them with communication.”

Keep Yourself Right

It takes Oklahoma farmer John Scripsick about seven seconds to draw cheering applause: “After listening to you talk about recruiting, I think it should be a law that a recruiter cannot go into a high school.” Dressed in plain clothing and ball cap, Scripsick tells the story of his son Bryan who joined the Marines right out of high school and served for three years and three weeks before being killed in Iraq.

“I often wonder if my son had lived if he would have joined your cause,” says Scripsick. “I was told that in a training exercise in California a higher up gave Bryan an order and Bryan just stood there. The higher up gets in Bryan’s face and asks him if he is going to obey his orders and Bryan just stood there and said, ‘No sir!’ The guy got louder and asked Bryan, you know, ‘Why aren’t you going to do that?’ And Bryan said, ‘Because. That’s. Stupid. Sir!’”

The week before Bryan left for Iraq, Scripsick told his son that although he was going to some dangerous places, if he kept himself right with the man upstairs, he would have nothing to be afraid of. “You who see wrong and speak out,” says Scripsick nodding to the Winter Soldiers, “you’re speaking the truth, and you don’t have anything to be afraid of.” As the audience rises for a standing ovation, Scripsick collects his notes from the podium.

We are not Dollar Signs

As Scripsick walks slowly away from the podium, past the first chair at the panel table, Bobby Whittenberg rises to give the Gold Star Father a big hug and a hearty slap on the back. Whittenberg is introduced as a new member of the IVAW with an impressive passion for the cause of peace. “Hey thanks a lot for being here everybody,” says Whittenberg leaning forward into the mic. Over his black t-shirt, Whittenberg wears a camouflage shirt filled with counter-insignia, sleeves rolled up past elbows. His cap, too, is decked with pins, and he looks out with intensity from behind a trim brown beard as he checks his watch for the starting time.

It was the way his John Wayne commander wanted his men to come swaggering into that Iraqi town that is to blame for Whittenberg getting shot with an AK-47 in some foreign war. “But what happened after that blew my mind even more,” he says. “I became a pariah.” Whittenberg found himself fighting for medical attention then fighting to get out. By the time he won his freedom, he was virtually bed sick and the Veteran’s Administration was explaining to him why he couldn’t get the latest drug to address his medical condition. As soon as he switched to a civilian doctor, his health improved within weeks.

“And the reason is this:” explains Whittenberg, “when you live in a hierarchical capitalist system, the little guy on the bottom, everyone, every one of you, is assessed not by your value as a human being, but by your market value. My market value was not very much at the Department of Defense and was not very much at the V.A. But we’re not dollar signs,” says Whittenberg pointing upward with his left hand. “We’re not weapons. We are not a means of spreading capitalism and greed around the world. We are human beings,” he declares. As Whittenberg says “human” he raises his right forearm to flash the tattoo that says “HUMAN” in bold, all-cap font, written from elbow to wrist.

Soon enough the sound system is quavering and popping as Whittenberg raises one arm and another in passionate declarations that, “Each one of us is born into this world in the same way. We live the same way. Breathe the same air. They can try to commodify food, they can try to commodify water, they can try to commodify health care, but they will never commodify our lives!” Whittenberg shouts into a commotion that drowns his voice, so he pauses. “Your power is not at the ballot box. Your power is in your voice. We need no representation. We can speak for ourselves. We are all equal.” As Whittenberg brings the hall to a crescendo, a man stands fist-up to echo his final refrain: “All power to the people!”

Gazing Upon the Future

“That’s Bobby,” deadpans Greg Foster, raising a swell of laughter as he prepares to introduce the last speaker on the program, Mike Corwin. “When I was talking to some local IVAW members about the program and they saw Mike’s name on the program they said, ‘Is that that one guy who’s smiling and always friendly?’ I said, yeah, that’s Mike, so here he is.”

Corwin has been a socialist a little too long to get qualified as a Winter Soldier, but if we think about the qualities that Doug Zachary says a Winter Soldier should have, then Corwin clearly counts as a steadfast activist against imperialist aggressions. A civilian for peace was the first panelist of the day; another civilian for peace will be the last.

“Why is it that we are spending trillions of dollars already on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and being told at the same time that the money is not there to bring badly needed relief to people here at home,” asks Corwin. He wants to frame an answer in the context of Obama America. On the one hand, Obama’s election seemed to signal a “total rejection of ideas popular for a generation.” On the other hand, as far as the interests of the “American corporate class” are concerned, the new administration offers “a great deal of continuity.”

In fact, says Corwin, “Obama’s goal is to salvage and rehabilitate U.S. military power for the ruling class.” Tactical decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan are still being governed by an overall strategic priority to prop up a permanent global reach for US empire, which means the withdrawal from Iraq is getting slower, the buildup in Afghanistan bigger, and the legacy of the endless war on terrorism clings to its spending priorities.

But there are “chimes of freedom flashing,” says Corwin with Dylan on his mind. Chicago workers occupied their workplace to win severance pay. Students at New School University occupied their cafeteria to gain influence in university leadership. And on college campuses across the country, students protested Israel’s attack on Gaza. At the University of Rochester, a student occupation drew concessions regarding institutional spending in the Middle East.

Corwin wins a passionate burst of applause as he takes his seat. After a round of Q&A, folks head outdoors into the wind for a spirited march through downtown Austin, chanting, “They’re our brothers, they’re our sisters! We support war resisters!” As marchers round the corner in front of the homeless shelter at 7th and Neches, they chant, “Money for Jobs, Not for War!” At Sixth Street the “Not for War” chant draws a heckler: “Ain’t gonna stop the war, get used to it!” But nobody misses a step.

At the sundown rally on West Cesar Chavez St., three generations of war resisters hold up an American flag, an IVAW banner, and the day’s Winter Soldier banner that Heidi Turpin made. Casey Porter’s mother greets the group with smiling support and appreciation from Casey’s extended family. And New Mexico Winter Soldier Adam Kokesh punctuates the day with his ex-Marine conclusion that there is no such thing as a good war.

Tonight there will be fellowship in famous Austin fashion, and tomorrow up the road there will be a grand opening of the “Under the Hood” coffee shop for soldiers near Ft. Hood. But right now as the sun glows into the evening wind, pretty much what you hear are the birds gathering in the Live Oak trees, chattering insistently about their Saturday. Yes of course it is–no it must be–a conference of the birds preparing themselves to see in the Colorado water below everything they’re looking for when nothing but the ultimate answer will suffice. Perhaps there are no more than thirty left at the rally after all, but why should any more be needed to set the universe right side up?