When a company of U.S. Marines first battled their way into the southern city of Nasiriyah in the opening days of the Iraq war, they fired at almost anything that moved in the dark. Their aggressiveness was not wanton, but had a purpose: to protect the main convoy from attack by gunmen in civilian clothes who often fired from homes and from among women and children. Less than 24 hours later, however, the shock of all they'd just experienced began sinking in and some of the Marines started to question their actions. During a lull in the fighting their commander told them that if they ever fired at women and children like that again, there'd be hell to pay. But, he added, "no one will question you if you feel you or your Marines are threatened."
Next week marks the end of the fifth year that U.S. troops have fought in the moral swamp of Iraq; and this weekend, at an event dubbed "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan," nearly 140 veterans are describing the wars in all their disturbing detail. Billed as the largest gathering of veterans to take a public stand against those wars, veterans and a few active duty troops have filled the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., to testify about the human cost of the war: the killing of civilians and noncombatants, abuse of prisoners and mistreating the dead.
"These are not bad people; these are not criminals; these are not monsters," Army Pfc. Clifton Hicks said of his fellow soldiers Friday as he told a hushed crowd of some 300 people how his unit smashed a civilian neighborhood with overwhelming firepower to silence a few insurgents threatening them near Abu Ghraib. "They are put in a horrible situation and they act horribly," he said. "The only way you can ensure your survival is that you put them in the dirt before they put you in the dirt."
Organizers say they modeled the event on the original Winter Soldier hearings in 1971, a little-known gathering in a hotel in Detroit where more than a hundred Vietnam veterans, and a few poseurs, described American atrocities in Vietnam at a time when most Americans were sick of the war. That original testimony took flight when it was entered into the Congressional Record by a Republican Senator from Oregon and then was partially recounted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the invitation of anti-war Sen. J. William Fulbright. Reading it to a packed house was one young Navy Lt. John Kerry, recently returned from duty on a river "swift boat" in Vietnam. His participation in the original Winter Soldier both catapulted Kerry's political career and marked him as unpatriotic three decades later during his 2004 bid for the presidency, when opponents unearthed his 1971 Winter Soldier testimony and revisited their sense of betrayal, revealing just how fresh the wounds of Vietnam still are. Kerry refused to be interviewed for this article. Military officials also refused to comment.
The resurrection of Winter Soldier is already be pitting veterans against veterans. Not only are pro-war veterans denouncing the testifiers as a few malcontents, phonies or potential war criminals to be prosecuted according to the alleged crimes they reveal, but the event site itself has become contested ground. Red-shirted security volunteers, almost all gray-haired veterans of Vietnam who opposed that war, face off with their pro-war counterparts, many of them still swearing that the war would have been won in Vietnam had it not been lost at home. During Hick's early testimony, guards wrestled down a man after he burst into the hall screaming, "Kerry lied while good men died! You guys are betraying these guys like he did!"
Former Army Capt. Pete Hegseth, executive director of the well-oiled pro-war group Veterans for Freedom, served in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood in 2005-2006. After returning two weeks ago from a second tour in Iraq, this time as a civilian military blogger, Hegseth said the Winter Soldier testimony is ill-timed and in bad taste because American forces have finally turned a corner in Iraq. "I was in Baghdad for five days without a shot being fired," he said in a recent interview with TIME. "There used to be 20 to 25 bodies a night around the Dora market. But now, nothing," he said. "It was eerie. It was odd."
Hegseth attributed that calm to the military surge that for the past year has concentrated tens of thousands more troops in Baghdad. He also said U.S. forces finally adopted a counterinsurgency strategy based on restraint and respect that seems to be finally working. "I know people are justifiably frustrated," he said of the veterans testifying at the Winter Soldier event. "I don't think we understood counterinsurgency," he said. "We were pursuing a strategy that did not understand the complexity of the situation on the ground."
While Hegseth does not deny that bad things happen in war and that bad things happened in Iraq, he worries that those testifying at Winter Soldier haven't taken into account the recent military successes. "I'm going to come back and say we were just fighting the wrong way," he said. "I've gotta say that it [Winter Soldier] pits one small minority group against the vast majority of veterans. I want nothing to do with the perspective that says vets are victims, vets are criminals," he said. "It pits a small group against what most Americans understand vets to be."
Aaron Hughes, a sensitive and quiet-spoken former Army sergeant who was among the tight-knit group of disgruntled veterans who came up with the concept of holding a new Winter Soldier hearing, said he arrived at his anti-war position more than a year after returning from Iraq. "I went over there to help. I went over there to rebuild a country," he said in a recent interview with TIME. "But you realize when you are over there that that's not what you are able to do. None of our mission had to do with the basic needs of the Iraqi people, and the occupying force is responsible for the welfare of the people. The military isn't designed to build things; it's designed to break things. If we are going to use the military, then let's show people how it's really being used."