Iraq Winter Soldier Hearings

A Victory for Independent Media

In 1971 at age 19, I had a life-changing experience when I met dozens of Vietnam veterans who’d descended on my hometown of Detroit to testify at the “Winter Soldier” hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In anguished presentations, the Vets painstakingly described the horrors against Vietnamese they’d seen or taken part in. And the attitudes of racism and bloodlust that motored the war. Many vets blamed the lies in mainstream media for convincing them to go to Vietnam in the first place.

Virtually every soul in that Detroit hotel banquet hall wept openly at the heartfelt, bone-chilling revelations pouring out of the Vietnam vets struggling with bloody memories and post-traumatic stress. But no one outside that hall could see or hear the proceedings. No TV or radio networks covered the event.

This weekend at the National Labor College near Washington D.C., a new generation of vets convened by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) presented powerful hearings – “Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan” – that were more extensive and perhaps even more emotional.

Thirty seven years later, I again found myself sobbing at testimony from solemn young Americans returned from needless war, grappling with shattered lives over brutalities against civilians and prisoners they’d witnessed or participated in.

But I was nowhere near D.C.

This time, I watched the dramatic testimony – often buttressed by photographic and video evidence — live online at This time, I caught hours of coverage on Free Speech TV, the national satellite network that broadcast the panels of testimony and featured interviews with vets and their families in between panels. This time, I received regular video news feeds in my email inbox from The Real News Network. (The hearings were also televised on 20 public access channels from Fayetteville to Palo Alto, and in public gatherings from Florida to Alaska.)

On my car radio, I listened to the proceedings live on Pacifica network, which broadcast the hearings to affiliates nationwide – along with call-ins and email from listeners, including Iraq vets and soldiers not as critical of the war.

The four days of vets’ testimony revealed the struggle these young Americans are waging to regain their humanity and morality after having been transformed into callous war-fighters who largely dehumanized Iraqis as a people – not just “the enemy” or combatants. An objective observer hearing the testimony would have good reason to wonder if U.S. troops – given the often gratuitous and racist brutality, and the mistreatment of women, children and the elderly — can ever be a solution in Iraq.

On panel after panel, the veterans offered heartfelt “apologies to the Iraqi people” for what our country has done to their country. I saw a vet rip up the commendation he’d received from Gen. David Petraeus, denouncing the general as a cheerleader who put his own ambitions above his duty to the troops and to the truth. Many vets called for rapid withdrawal from Iraq and criticized Democratic leaders for prolonging and funding the endless occupation.

Ex-Marine Jon Turner, who served two tours in Iraq, ripped his medals from his shirt and threw them on the ground, concluding: “I’m sorry for the hate and destruction I and others have inflicted upon innocent people… Until people hear what is going on, this is going to continue. I am no longer the monster that I once was.”

Such powerful first-hand accounts – if heard by the American public – would threaten continued funding of the Iraq occupation. But national mainstream outlets in our country, unlike big foreign outlets, largely ignored this weekend’s proceedings.

Not surprisingly, these Iraq veterans had little but scorn for U.S. corporate media whose journalistic failures helped sell the war five years ago, and whose sanitized coverage helps sell the troop “surge” today.

But thanks to the Internet and the growing capacity of independent TV, radio and web outlets, a significant minority of Americans had access to these proceedings. And the archived hearings are now available to anyone anytime with computer access.

In Detroit in 1971, I remember what happened when one of the rare mainstream camera crews showed up at Winter Soldier. . .and then abruptly packed up to leave in the middle of particularly gripping testimony. A roomful of Vietnam vets booed and jeered. It was the moment I became a media critic.

Winter Soldier II shows that it’s not enough to criticize corporate media. Even more important is to take advantage of new technologies to keep building independent media.

Jeff Cohen is founder of the media watch group FAIR, former TV pundit/producer, and author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media. Read other articles by Jeff, or visit Jeff's website.

17 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Lou Hill said on March 17th, 2008 at 7:58am #

    On my car radio, I listened to the proceedings live on Pacifica network, which broadcast the hearings to affiliates nationwide – along with call-ins and email from listeners, including Iraq vets and soldiers not as critical of the war.

    If only that were true.

    Pacifica was, quite incredibly, awol from its own broadcast. KPFT Houston ignored the hearings and kept to its regular “all-music” weekend schedule.

    How ironic to hear frequent complaints of the MSM’s lack of coverage during the hearings, via webstream, as KPFT’s own broadcast carried the likes of Pink Floyd.

    What a shame and a waste, and an insult to Pacifica’s true spirit, that Houston airwaves were deprived of this vital, and very powerful testimony from the ongoing illegal occupation of Iraq.

  2. Frank Bubo said on March 17th, 2008 at 4:13pm #

    I thought it was amazing to listen to the parade of confessions of murder, war crimes, and conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit war crimes by the participants themselves, who then excused their behaviors by “apologizing” and urging that the occupation itself is the problem, and not their own behaviors.

    This is in contrast to Elliot Spitzer who assumed accountability for his own behaviors and stepped down from his entire political career with the possibility of future prosecution.

    Many of the Winter Soldiers confessed to Summer Atrocities, including murdering noncombatant civilians under direct pressure and sometimes orders to do so from their superiors.

    And the Pacifica broadcast crew swept the crimes under the rug, accepting the claims by the murderers that they themselves were victims of a bad situation. That would be like a Hell’s Angel claiming he was not to blame because he happened to be in a bad environment. The US Army is an all-volunteer army and all soldiers are under legal mandate to disobey illegal orders and to avoid war crimes.

    It was sad to see Pacifica Radio stoop to tacitly condoning murder by soldiers who had after the fact pangs of conscience. If this is Pacific at its best, God help us.

  3. Robert Magarulian said on March 17th, 2008 at 5:37pm #

    I agree with the need for soldier hearings. But, like Frank Bubo, I have my doubts about “the healing” – when it’s combined with scapegoating. These were my thoughts over the weekend:

    “Soldiers and Marines are not to blame for the suffering of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan; these veterans’ stories will indicate that responsibility belongs to those in the seat of power. Winter Soldier will prove that the problem goes much deeper than the atrocities of Abu Ghraib or the massacre in Haditha.”
    Liam Madden, an Iraq war veteran and co-founder of Appeal for Redress. He serves on the Board of Directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

    “Contrary to the rhetoric of political and military leaders, wrongdoings in Iraq and Afghanistan are not isolated incidents perpetrated by ‘bad apples.’ Throughout the military, from the highest levels of power, servicemen and women are being ordered to do things that violate their consciences and the rules of war. We repeatedly see lower enlisted soldiers getting punished for bad policy. Winter Soldier will place the blame of atrocious U.S. war policy where it belongs: on our political leaders.”
    From the Iraq Veterans Against the War website.

    “We’re only a bunch of volunteers following orders. You can’t blame us. Gosh, we’re all just ignorant people who want to get a college education after we’re done killing the bad guys led by Al Qaeda. We don’t know nothin’. Our political leaders are the ones to blame for all the atrocities, not us.”
    A volunteer, ignorant person awaiting his college education.

    “Soldiers and Marines have failed to act in accordance with Geneva Conventions and the conclusions reached at the Nuremberg trials. Avoiding responsibility will only lead to mental health problems later on. Yes, political leaders are also responsible for their actions. But focusing solely on political leaders, while discounting one’s own actions, merely continues the scapegoating.”
    Robert, Vietnam-era veteran, U.S. Navy.

  4. joed said on March 17th, 2008 at 7:16pm #

    self-defence doesn’t allow a person to go somewhere to kill another human. there is no moral justification for the death of any iraqi at the hands of an american. the iraqi’s are defending self and family etc. the americans are murderers.
    can going public and apologizing make life livable for the vets. probably, given the undeveloped moral sense of the imature american people. these vets are typical, and it is sad. what a world humans have created. i have a hunch we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 17th, 2008 at 11:45pm #

    Thanks very much for this, Jeff Cohen.

    Frank Bubo, I take it you would describe the victims of fatality-causing drunken drivers as “murder victims” also, instead of “involuntary homicides.” I just wonder whether your attitude comes more from ignorance or fear.

    Robert Magarulian. I’m curious. This Robert guy, the Vietnam-era Navy vet you quote, when and under what cricumstances did he deliver his pronouncement condemning his fellow Marines along with “political leaders”? Before 1975 and in public? And if you heard the Winter Soldier testimonies, you’d know: NO one discounted their own actions while scapegoating others.

    Joed. “These vets are typical, and it is sad.” No, IVAW’s membership is pretty far from typical. Its numbers have been holding steady for months at around 850. Do you have any idea what percentage of the eligible pool of veterans that represents? I’ve read you frequently at DV, joed. It’s not IVAW that’s typical and sad. It’s you.

  6. Max Shields said on March 18th, 2008 at 6:15am #

    While I agree that soldiers having committed atrocities and “confessing” them does not abdicate those actions. Actions they will forever live with.

    A form of Truth and Reconciliation is what is called for; but we’ll not see. This may be the closest thing to an acknowledgement of the horror that we unleash on people. Our sins are deep and many. That these sins are not shown to the public at large – when a CNN does a update on Iraq and Afganistan and never mentions the Winter Soldiers it is just one more case of hiding our collective wantoness. We hide so much from ourselves as a people. The “war” is not “our” war; it is Bush’s war we tell ourselves. No, it is ours. We, collectively live off the fat of war, we bath in it, we mall in it, we tv in it, we eat popcorn in it, we drive down the highway because of war, our war, our blood soaked wars.

    Winter Solidier is not Truth and Reconciliation, but it is a glimpse of what WE have done and continue to do. We need to look at it, stare into the face of the victims of our madness. No excuses.

    These boys who went and killed are our arms and legs, that’s all that distinguishes their acts from ours. Bush has shoved our hedonism in our faces. He, god help us, is our worst darker side.

  7. joed said on March 18th, 2008 at 6:33am #

    Lloyd Rowsey. “These vets are typical, and it is sad.”
    thanks for the feed back. i certainly could have been more clear in my wording. what i meant by “typical” was the vets are typical of american adults in that they have a very imature, undeveloped, often twisted sense of what it means to be moral. if these vets were concerned morally they would not have gone to iraq and killed other people. certainly most of the vets of IVAW have, to some degree, realized the terror they caused and want to make amends. but those amends don’t really help anyone except the vet him or herself.
    too bad people can’t figure out how to think on their own.
    as for my being “typical” i have tried all my life to be “typical”. one question i have is; is being an outlier a blessing or a curse?! another; is being “typical” a blessing or a curse?!
    as for sad, i would say yes, at the core of the(my) human condition there is sadness. sadness is the bottom line for us isn’t it. if for no other reason than that we know, on some level, that our human consciousness is unique and that we will someday die and our consciousness will be gone too. sad indeed!
    most interesting article on sadness and the human condition;
    Mr. Rowsey, thanks so much for the interaction.

  8. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 18th, 2008 at 7:35am #

    one simple answer, JDT: whether being typical is a blessing or a curse depends on the circumstances. moreover you and i share a view of the significance of sadness in the human conditon. so thank YOU for this, joed. most posters who show breadth of emotions, like thee and me, post in haste frequently. except of course for the astonishingly measured Max Shelds.

    thank you also good sir or madam max.

  9. Bl4ckP0pe said on March 18th, 2008 at 10:11am #

    Yes, you’ll weep for the Pain of Mr FeelGood Fucking WarCriminal

    that’s what being a born-again fake ‘Dissident Voice’ (TM) in happy-clappy skYankiLandia is all about

    Now, polish the General’s Helmet to a spit-shine, Democrat Bitches!

  10. SC said on March 18th, 2008 at 10:53am #

    I don’t know about you folks, but I’m unable to interact with people who are 18 or 19 without feeling that they’re still children. They may be big and strong and bright – even very bright – but, in my experience, they’re children. Almost none of them have even the slightest idea of what’s actually going on in the world, even when they can relate conversations and lessons they’ve had at school about war, poverty, government. They seem to be semi-comatose, the way 18 and 19 year olds have always seemed. Their world is tiny, goofy, even infantile at times, and populated by a great, big, selfish, “ME!”
    This was the case in my life, as I recall it. It’s been 4 decades since I was that age, but I don’t remember knowing much about the “broader world,” or feeling much about it at all, except confusion, anger, and frustration. I was sometimes against the war in Vietnam, but several friends assured me that my opposition was more likely based on fear / cowardice, than on any profound moral position. I generally believed them. I believed them.
    I / we had just spent our last 13 years in the very heart of America’s most efficient and relentless propaganda center – school. All propaganda, all the time. The judgment of this propaganda was that the war was OK, because it was being waged in the defense of our freedom. I didn’t wholeheartedly believe this stuff, but the tendency to TRY to believe it was overwhelming. As kids at school would often say to dissenters and outsiders of all sorts: “Yeah, you’re right, pal. You’re right, and the world’s wrong! Shut the fuck up!” It was a simple little attack, but it always hit home.
    My parents believed in the war, as did every adult I knew – without exception. My entire world said – Screamed! – that it was right to go off to fight the commies. I knew no dissidents at all, though there were a few potheads who’d say: “Fuck that, man. Peace.”
    I tended to agree, but the argument didn’t go very far in the face of the almost universal pressure to go into the military.
    Moreover, most of my friends, especially older friends, had gone off, or were thinking seriously about going. I had no moral compass to which to turn. I had no significant experiences as a self-directed human being to draw upon. I’d been treated like a schmuck-child throughout my entire life, as had all of my friends. We distrusted adults, sure – but we distrusted our own thinking just as much. Beneath the teen-age bravado there was little more than confusion.
    We were preoccupied with fighting other teenagers, with getting laid, with finding some pot, with buying beer, with getting a car, with looking good and being cool. Everything else – EVERYTHING else was peripheral, unreal – “fucking stupid, man.”

    A variety of strange circumstances got me into community college for a while, then I landed in the Navy, where – after bootcamp – I never even held a weapon. But all of that was just chance, and had chance been different, I’d have gone off to Viet Nam – still lost in my goofy, horny, violent, confused little teen world. In that case, of course, they’d have given me lots of deadly weapons, and they’d have taught me how to use them. I don’t know if I had the tools or the “center,” at the time, to stand against such pressures. I don’t think I did. I don’t think kids do now, either.
    As I got into my 20’s, I looked back on my late teens with much embarrassment and amazement. I’d known virtually nothing about almost everything. It’s like I was only semi-conscious, dreaming.
    That’s how I see 18 and 19 year olds, now. The idea that they’re making their own decisions and responsible for their own lives is essentially preposterous. Most of them have not yet had a life at all, and they’re surrounded by people and institutions which relentlessly tell them to kill for their beloved country.
    The real question, I think, was the one asked at the end of the film: “Valley of Elah.” The little boy says to his mother: “Why would the grown ups send a little boy [David] down into the valley to fight such a big, scary monster [Goliath], when even they were afraid to fight him?”
    “I don’t know,” his mother replies.
    I don’t know either.

  11. Mark said on March 18th, 2008 at 10:54am #

    Independent media’s ‘coverage’ was shameful. Lou points out KPFT. Let me add that WBAI pulled the same crap but their tunes were even older. Independent media didn’t cover it and include Jeff Cohen who has provided us with a diary of his day as opposed to writing about the testimonies offered.

  12. maha said on March 18th, 2008 at 11:04am #

    So.. beyond pouring their hearts out and confessing their crimes like good Christians and apologizing what are they going to do? Saddam for example was found guilty for giving orders to murder villagers. Are these soldiers going to help bring their leaders to justice?

  13. hp said on March 18th, 2008 at 12:40pm #

    Sir, no sir!
    That’s when the war in Viet Nam ended.
    Sir, no sir!
    That’s when the war in Iraq will end.

    “We all killed Jesus.”
    Mel Gibson
    Bullshit, Mel.

  14. maha said on March 18th, 2008 at 11:31pm #

    Yes, SC, they are robot soldiers programmed from birth. But what is the point of these hearings and what is the point of this article? Is it in the end to make people feel that the big boys can do anything they like and all everyone can do is weep about it? Maybe the big boys helped organise it.

    A quote from one US sergeant:” “The problem that we face in Iraq is that policymakers in leadership have set a precedent of lawlessness where we don’t abide by the rule of law..”, he explained: this makes itself felt in the rules of engagement handed down by commanders to soldiers on the front lines.

    So, how about prosecuting your commanders? Or is that too far out a concept?

    He goes on that when he was stationed in Samarra, for example, one of his fellow soldiers shot an unarmed man while he walked down the street. “The problem is that that soldier was not committing a crime …”

    Eh?? Actually it is a crime you moron. This is how some people I know there have been killed, simply for walking in the wrong area without knowledge of the orders these invading criminals had been given.

  15. Miley said on March 19th, 2008 at 6:47am #

    I don’t see the praise Mr. Cohen does. I see a lot of silence and a lot of independent media not doing their job. Even with Winter Soldier concluded, I still don’t see any coverage of it in the bulk of independent media.

  16. Lloyd Rowsey said on March 19th, 2008 at 7:51am #

    Thank you SC. Your mixture of true opinion and true remembrance is absolutely where internet political communications should be.

    And for those who feel getting the US out of Iraq is the defining issue of 2008, here is Dennis Kucinich’s video of today, March 19, 2008:

  17. hp said on March 19th, 2008 at 9:19am #

    The ‘sir, no sir’ refusal to further fight was also accompanied by a form of prosecution of commanders. It was called ‘fragging.’