'It's not so much about the mission anymore'
Silver Spring, Maryland--The order came over the radio: "Charlie Mike," US army jargon for "continue mission."
Cliff Hicks' team of soldiers patrolling a typically friendly neighbourhood had mistaken celebratory gunfire at a wedding for a hostile attack and had shot up a house, wounding two people and killing a little girl.
The troops didn't want to linger in the house, and their command centre ordered them out.
"We didn't even have a translator, we didn't speak Arabic, we couldn't even say sorry," said Hicks, 23, a tank driver and machine gunner. "We just hopped in our vehicle and rode off."
Hicks and other young veterans testified this weekend at a conference sponsored by Iraq Veterans Against the War. Titled "Winter Soldier," the conference at the National Labour College was modelled on a similar affair in 1971 in which Vietnam veterans spoke up about mayhem in that conflict.
The three-day forum is intended to draw attention to problems caused by the US occupation of Iraq, at a time when most Americans think the war was a mistake and not worth the cost.
The sad-eyed men, one wearing service medals pinned to his suit jacket, spoke of deadly weapons fired indiscriminately on civilians' vehicles and homes, of daily, humiliating harassment of Iraqis, and of the dehumanising effects the war has on the young men and women who volunteered to fight it.
Event organisers said the [soliders'] service records and stories were carefully vetted for accuracy, a job made easier since the Vietnam era by the proliferation of inexpensive digital cameras. Some said US soldiers in Iraq carry them like side-arms.
The men hailed their comrades as typically well-meaning individuals, saving their criticism for the planning and execution of the war and the rules of engagement they said yielded civilian casualties.
"It's criminal to put such patriotic Americans who have sworn an oath to protect and defend the constitution of the United States of America in a situation where their morals are at odds with their survival instincts," said Adam Kokesh, who was a Marine Corps sergeant in Falluja in 2004.
Kokesh served on a civil affairs team tasked with winning over Iraqi hearts and minds. He said his unit joked with other soldiers, "We care so you don't have to."
The soldiers spoke of confusing rules of engagement, of the inability to discern violent insurgents from peaceable civilians, and of good-natured, patriotic Americans moved to violence by fear and anger at Iraqis who sought to drive them from their country.
Several of the men said they opposed the war from the beginning but volunteered for service in Iraq because they wanted to speed the US mission to its conclusion or help the Iraqi people recover from the invasion. But some said attitudes soon changed.
"It's not so much about the mission anymore," said Steve Mortillo, who served as an infantryman in a cavalry unit in Iraq in 2004. "It's about doing what you have to do to make sure you don't have to stand in another formation and listen to 'Amazing Grace' played on bagpipes one more time."
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Monday March 17 2008. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
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