BOOK REVIEW 'We blew her to pieces' Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan by Aaron Glantz
Reviewed by Dahr Jamail
Aside from the Iraqi people, nobody knows what the United States military is
doing in Iraq better than the soldiers themselves. A new book gives readers
vivid and detailed accounts of the devastation the US occupation has brought to
Iraq, in the soldiers' own words.
Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan is a gut-wrenching, historic
chronicle of what the US military has done to Iraq, as well as its own
Authored by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and journalist Aaron Glantz,
the book is a reader for hearings that took place in
Silver Spring, Maryland, between March 13-16, 2008, at the National Labor
"I remember one woman walking by," said Jason Washburn, a corporal in the US
Marines who served three tours in Iraq. "She was carrying a huge bag, and she
looked like she was heading toward us, so we lit her up with the Mark 19, which
is an automatic grenade launcher, and when the dust settled, we realized that
the bag was full of groceries. She had been trying to bring us food and we blew
her to pieces."
Washburn testified on a panel that discussed the rules of engagement in Iraq,
and how lax they were, even to the point of being virtually non-existent.
"During the course of my three tours, the rules of engagement changed a lot,"
Washburn's testimony continues. "The higher the threat the more viciously we
were permitted and expected to respond."
His emotionally charged testimony, like all of those in the book that covered
panels addressing dehumanization, civilian testimony, sexism in the military,
veterans' health care and the breakdown of the military, raised issues that
were repeated again and again by other veterans.
"Something else we were encouraged to do, almost with a wink and nudge, was to
carry 'drop weapons', or by my third tour, 'drop shovels'. We would carry these
weapons or shovels with us because if we accidentally shot a civilian, we could
just toss the weapon on the body, and make them look like an insurgent,"
Four days of searing testimony is consolidated into the book, which makes for a
difficult read. One page after another is filled with devastating stories from
the soldiers about what is being done in Iraq.
Everything from the taking of "trophy" photos of the dead, to torture and
slaughtering of civilians is included.
"We're trying to build a historical record of what continues to happen in this
war and what the war is really about," Glantz told Inter Press Service.
Hart Viges, a member of the 82nd Airborne Division of the army who served one
year in Iraq, tells of taking orders over the radio.
"One time they said to fire on all taxicabs because the enemy was using them
for transportation ... One of the snipers replied back, 'Excuse me? Did I hear
that right? Fire on all taxicabs?' The lieutenant colonel responded, 'You heard
me, trooper, fire on all taxicabs.' After that, the town lit up, with all the
units firing on cars. This was my first experience with war, and that kind of
set the tone for the rest of the deployment."
Vincent Emanuele, a marine rifleman who spent a year in the al-Qaim area of
Iraq near the Syrian border, told of emptying magazines of bullets into the
city without identifying targets, running over corpses with Humvees and
stopping to take "trophy" photos of bodies.
"An act that took place quite often in Iraq was taking pot shots at cars that
drove by," he said. "This was not an isolated incident, and it took place for
most of our eight-month deployment."
Kelly Dougherty, the executive director of IVAW, blames the behavior of
soldiers in Iraq on the policies of the US government. "The abuses committed in
the occupations, far from being the result of a 'few bad apples' misbehaving,
are the result of our government's Middle East policy, which is crafted in the
highest spheres of US power," she said.
Knowing this, however, does little to soften the emotional and moral
devastation of the accounts.
"You see an individual with a white flag and he does anything but approach you
slowly and obey commands, assume it's a trick and kill him," Michael Leduc, a
corporal in the marines who was part of the US attack of Fallujah in November
2004, said were the orders from his battalion Judge Advocate General officer he
received before entering the city.
This is an important book for the public of the United States, in particular,
because the Winter Soldier testimonies were not covered by any of the
larger media outlets, aside from the Washington Post, which ran a single piece
on the event that was buried in the Metro section.
The New York Times, CNN, and network news channels ABC, NBC and CBS ignored it
This is particularly important in light of the fact that, as former marine Jon
Turner stated, "Any time we did have embedded reporters with us, our actions
changed drastically. We never acted the same. We were always on key with
everything, did everything by the book."
"To me it's about giving a picture of what war is like," Glantz added, "Because
here in the US we have this very sanitized version of what war is. But war is
when we have a large group of armed people killing large numbers of other
people. And that is the picture that people will get from reading veterans
testimony ... the true face of war."
Dehumanization of the soldiers themselves is covered in the book, including the
plight of veterans on their return home as they struggle to obtain care from
the Veterans Administration.
There is much testimony on the dehumanization of the Iraqi people as well.
Brian Casler, a corporal in the marines, spoke to some of this that he
witnessed during the invasion of Iraq. "But on these convoys, I saw marines
defecate into MRE [meals ready to eat] bags or urinate in bottles and throw
them at children on the side of the road," he stated.
Numerous accounts from soldiers include the prevalence of degrading terms for
Iraqis, such as "hajis", "towel-heads" and "sand-niggers".
Scott Ewing, who served in Iraq from 2005-2006, admitted on one panel that
units intentionally gave candy to Iraqi children for reasons other than
"winning hearts and minds".
"There was also another motive," Ewing said. "If the kids were around our
vehicles, the bad guys wouldn't attack. We used the kids as human shields."
Glantz admits that it would be difficult for the average US citizen to read the
book, and believes it is important to keep in mind while doing so what it took
for the veterans to give this historic testimony.
"They could have been heroes, but what they are doing here is even more heroic
- which is telling the truth," Glantz said. "They didn't have to come forward.
They chose to come forward."
Dahr Jamail is an Inter Press Service US-based specialist writer on Iraq
who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East.
Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations
by Aaron Glantz. Haymarket Books (September 1, 2008). ISBN-13: 978-1931859653.
Price US$10.88, 240 pages.