March of the Dead

They were dressed all in black, in the hundreds, marching single file, with white death masks and the names and ages of war victims on placards ‘round each of their necks. I caught my breath and watched in anguish—this after having listened to three grueling days of eyewitness accounts of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations at The Winter Soldier Hearings in Washington D.C. last month. Five years on, and there’s no end in sight—another quagmire.

As a child of the 60’s and 70’s, I am still impacted by multiple tragedies of the Vietnam War. I know many families who were split politically and are still not healed. Countless Vietnam vets living in nests under bushes or in encampments under bridges across the nation are “survivors” still unable to come to terms with the illegal and immoral war in which they were used by their government and thrown away like so much refuse. More Vietnam veterans have died since the war by their own hand than were actually killed in Vietnam. And thousands more tragic stories from the Vietnamese too, should have taught us—but here we are again.

Tens of thousands of Vietnam “draft dodgers” and Americans who opposed their government came to Canada and have made this country their home. I now count myself among them. I made Canada my home as a result of America’s latest wars and occupations—those of Iraq and Afghanistan. I can no longer support a country that imposes its free market religion on the rest of the planet at gunpoint. Arundhati Roy’s words come to mind “–when the soul of [my] country worships violence.”

With this ache in my heart I went to Washington to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. Though I’ve been back from D.C. for some time now, I can’t erase the words and images of soldiers’ testimonies from my mind.

The Winter Soldier hearings bore out my pre-war fears. Though not visibly wounded, these young men and women will carry the mental and emotional scars of war with them for the remainder of their days. They spoke in graphic detail–of running over civilians as if they were bumps in the road with their Humvees, of planting weapons on dead civilians to make them look like insurgents, and showed photos and video of the true human cost of war and occupation—oozing brains and entrails, torture, and the constant drumbeat of racism, sexism and dehumanization to make it possible to kill the enemy and annihilate his country. These were not the sanitized images that we see on the nightly news.

The first Winter Soldier hearings held in 1971, were an attempt by Vietnam Veterans Against the War to show that the My Lai Massacre was not just caused by “a few bad apples,” but by the immorality of the war itself. John Kerry, who participated in the first Winter Soldier Investigation explained prior to his testimony to Congress: “We who have come here to Washington have come here because we feel we have to be winter soldiers now. We could come back to this country; we could be quiet; we could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel because of what threatens this country, the fact that the crimes threaten it, not reds, and not redcoats but the crimes which we are committing that threaten it, that we have to speak out.”

Perry O’Brien, an Afghanistan war veteran (a medic), Winter Soldier organizer, and now Conscientious Objector, suggested in an online video interview that there is an unofficial “don’t ask don’t tell” policy between military personnel and civilians–civilians want to glorify the warrior, but don’t want to hear the gory details of war. He suggests that the people at home have a willful ignorance that goes hand in hand with the military telling soldiers that the civilian psyche can’t handle the reality of war and that soldiers should keep what they do in war to themselves.

Winter Soldiers speaking publicly will allow citizens to understand the reality and true cost of war. For soldiers, it’s a chance to unburden themselves of what they’ve done in the name of so called patriotism, freedom and democracy–and to vent their anger over being used for naked imperialism.

Upon returning home, it’s taken some time to integrate what I saw and experienced in D.C. The faces of those young vets are seared into my mind along with the faces of war resisters I’ve met personally who have come to Canada to say no to this latest illegal and immoral war. These young men and women are often met with the opinion that they should not be allowed to stay in Canada because they are part of America’s new volunteer army and a contract is a contract.

We know that the US government lies. The “all volunteer army” is in fact, a poverty draft. Testosterone laced recruitment campaigns featuring F-16s, helicopters and aircraft carriers appeal to youthful idealism and dreams of adventure while promising job skills, and being part of something greater than oneself—not to mention large signing bonuses and college tuition. All this sounds mighty fine to young men and women without prospects following high school graduation. This deliberate targeting of the most vulnerable and destitute in society for use as cannon fodder is despicable and sickening at best. There is little resistance to war without a draft—as long as there are willing bodies to go off to the latest manufactured conflict—to fight for our ‘way of life,’ to keep us safe from the bogeyman du jour.

The reality for soldiers returning home is that the war is no longer a topic of conversation—either in the news, or on the public’s mind. One soldier described his dismay one night in a bar when someone remarked on his uniform and exclaimed, “You mean we’re still over there?!” And if soldiers are not forced to return to the war zone for second, third, or even fourth tours of duty, many have to fight a gargantuan bureaucracy to have their physical and mental wounds attended to. For many, that deferred college education becomes a low priority as they try to rebuild their shattered lives and survive just one more day fighting internal demons or PTSD. Is it any wonder that there is an epidemic of suicides among veterans—over 120 per week in 2005?

So I return from D.C. with a recommitment to align myself especially with soldiers who have the courage to speak out against war and militarism–Americans and Canadians alike. It’s they who can end the scourge of war because they speak with the moral authority of those who have been there and know war’s realities.

War is an ongoing cycle of death, destruction, and horror, and Canada can do better. She can welcome U.S. War Resisters once again with open arms. She can reassert her leadership in the world as a peacemaking and peacekeeping nation, and stop following the criminal conduct of the U.S. government, and bring her soldiers home.

I urge you to listen to the Winter Soldier testimony at and to support War Resisters at

Carol Grier is an activist expat American living in British Columbia, Canada. Read other articles by Carol, or visit Carol's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on April 18th, 2008 at 6:41am #

    There are so many platitudes in this piece I cannot possibly address them all, or even want to. I apologize for what may seem a personal attack but I see no other way to critique March of the Dead.

    I’ve no idea what your personal experience with today’s military is, other than attending the WS event in D.C. Hubby and I considered expat status in the summer of 2001 – we knew war was on the horizon, for no other reason than the fiasco of installing Bush.

    The “poverty draft” is not really what the US has – not yet. Yes, there are poor folk in the military but there are also sons and daughters of America’s affluent and middle class, who joined for a variety of reasons unconnected to poverty.

    You write : “… young men and women without prospects following high school graduation. … deliberate targeting of the most vulnerable and destitute in society for use as cannon fodder is despicable and sickening … the scourge of war …”

    Insipid bordering on b.s., hype, meme, hyperbole. Do “progressives” have the same template when they write or what?

    “And if soldiers are not forced to return to the war zone for second, third, or even fourth tours of duty … ” – hon, there are troops volunteering for multiple tours b/c combat pay is good and most of them never have to kill anyone to earn it. Contrary to popular myth, tens of thousands of US troops are rotating in and out of Iraq and not killing a single Iraqi. Tens of thousands spend very mundane tours in Iraq.

    Yessir, war is wrong, lives are destroyed – but trotting off to another part of the White Folks Empire and taking 10 minutes out of the day to write puffery does not make anyone anymore rational or honest than the rightwing windbags.

    I believe today’s “progressive” writers/activists lose a wide swath of public support for the simple fact they either write to impress a small circle of folks who, believing their brows are higher, prefer eggheadish discussions on the “ism” of Marx/Lenin/Engels, OR they write trite knee-jerk pieces at a 6th grade level for civilian grunts.

    Progressives lose because they do not know their base.

  2. TS Draegeth said on April 18th, 2008 at 11:53am #

    Evie, I am not seeing your point.

  3. evie said on April 18th, 2008 at 8:29pm #

    Sorry, I can’t make it any clearer.

  4. Joel said on April 19th, 2008 at 9:16am #

    Thanks for the article. I sure hope Parliament does the right thing by US war resisters.
    Evie, first you say enlistment isn’t about poverty, then you say that it is (servicemembers re-up because the pay is good). Which is it?
    I’m in contact with a good number of service-members and people considered enlistment. Sure, some of them wax patriotically, a few might even be psychopaths looking for an legal outlet for racist violence. But the vast majority are motivated by the lure of money for college, sign-on bonuses and job training. The Heritage Foundation tried to discredit the poverty draft notion a few years back with a study of enlistment rates per zip code, uncovering that the largest jumps in recruiting numbers were happening in suburban areas – a shift from the recent past when an overwhelming majority of recruits came from poor inner city and rural parts of the country. But anyone in touch with the changing economic realities of US suburbs should not be surprised by this. Poverty rates are growing fastest in… that’s right, the suburbs. And the lure of money for college is hard to pass up when your folks make enough money (on paper) to disqualify you from student aid, but are so far in debt that they can’t afford to help pay your tuition. The US Army Recruiting Command trains its recruiters to identify young people that are insecure about their future, going so far as to give them tips on what times of the year first-year university students are most likely to drop out because of financial and psychological pressures.
    You say “there are troops volunteering for multiple tours b/c combat pay is good,” which is partly true. Not only is combat pay good, but certain bonuses might be tied directly to re-enlistment. And what’s a family breadwinner to do when he discovers that after 4 or 6 or 8 years in the service he hasn’t picked up any skills that are marketable in the civilian world? Why, he sticks with the only job he knows he can do. It doesn’t help that the military uses this reality to bully people into re-upping. The son of a friend of mine re-upped recently after a year in Iraq – only after his commanders hounded him for months, threatening to renege on his sign-on bonuses and warning him that no-one in the US would understand him, that he’d never find a job and his wife and kids would either leave him or they’d all end up in a homeless shelter. This, hon, is a poverty draft.

  5. hp said on April 19th, 2008 at 10:56am #

    ‘Platitude: an idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.

  6. evie said on April 19th, 2008 at 11:49am #

    My favorite, and which I have hoisted:

    Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.

  7. Gordon Sturrock said on April 23rd, 2008 at 7:46pm #

    “March of the Dead” video taken in D.C. on March 19th by Squadron13: