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BY BILL CRANDELL
It breaks out this way: Some of us see the war in Iraq as a conflict America had no choice but to enter, one that’s going well or at least decently. Others say the nation had to get into Iraq, but the current administration bungled it. The third view is the war was a mistake from the get-go. Vietnam veterans don’t fault the courage and capability of the troops, whichever outlook they have. Nor do Iraq veterans.

What’s striking is how these outlooks parallel the views Vietnam veterans had about our own war while it was on and for at least a decade afterward. The same three-way split shaped the founding years of Vietnam Veterans of America. VVA’s commitment that no generation of veterans would again abandon another began with our mutual pledge that we, as Vietnam veterans, would not break with one another over differences in how we saw the war. You could hear it voiced as, “Well, you’re full of crap, but you’ve got a right to your opinion. You fought there.”

So it is no surprise that veterans of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan have the same range of opinions about their war. They have each other’s backs, no matter what they think of the larger issues. Still, they split the way we did.

To see how these viewpoints play out among the next generation of veterans, I went in mid-March to attend Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan, a major project of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), held just outside Washington, D.C., in Silver Spring, Maryland. For anyone who had attended the original Winter Soldier Investigation in 1971—and there were well over a dozen old Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) hands present in Silver Spring—it was déjà vu. The parallels were striking: scores of angry young combat veterans denouncing the war they recently fought as a disaster kindled by inadequate vision, with American troops wasted while being pushed to commit acts that scarred them as much as the outer war had.

IVAW claims more than a thousand members who have served in the United States military since September 11, 2001, organized into 43 chapters in 48 states. Its leaders selected 55 witnesses to testify about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to present video and photographic evidence. Veterans described the killing and injuring of innocent civilians and unarmed combatants, racism and sexism in the military, and their experience since coming home. There also were panels of scholars, veterans, journalists, and others to give context to the first-person testimony, as well as taped interviews with Iraqi civilians.

On the first night, Kelly Dougherty, who served two tours as a military police officer in Iraq and is now IVAW’s executive director, told the packed auditorium that she became involved as one of the group’s founders “because of the damage to Iraq and our military comrades, and to uphold the values we went to fight for.” She described IVAW’s goals as “ending the occupation, full compensation for veterans, and reparations for the human and structural harm done in Iraq.”

The mutual support between generations of veterans was obvious. Barry Romo of VVAW, who testified at the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation, began his remarks about the event’s place in the legacy of GI resistance during wartime by saying, “How honored we are to be here.” Born on the Fourth of July author Ron Kovic sent the message: “It takes tremendous courage to speak up against your country’s policies. We are fighting for the soul of America.”

Not all veterans agreed. A middle-aged protester slipped into the conference on the third day, yelling, “You guys are betraying good men.” A well-organized security contingent provided by VVAW frog-marched him outside. Many Vietnam veterans still feel that the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation demonized our generation of veterans as “baby-killers,” although that epithet was hurled with equal venom at returning riflemen, clerks, and chaplains as early as 1967.

The tone of the testimony was anything but defamatory, though many of the acts veterans described were horrific. “The politicians and the generals have continued these occupations to the point of breaking our soldiers and destroying our military,” Brooklyn IVAW member Selena Coppa, a Military Intelligence sergeant on active duty in the Army, said. “As veterans and as patriots, many of us feel we must speak out about our experiences in order to change current policies and bring honor and dignity back to our military and our country.”

Jabbar Magruder, a student at California State University, Northridge, and a sergeant in the Army National Guard deployed to Tikrit in 2005, put it differently. In a panel describing rules of engagement that grew increasing permissive until it became, in one soldier’s words, pretty much fair game to shoot at anyone who seemed to pose a threat, Magruder commented: “This is not a failure of leadership. Commanders will always give troops tools to defend themselves. The problem is the occupation.”

The witnesses, carefully screened by IVAW to verify their credentials, presented a visually mixed bunch. Like the returning veterans of the 1960s and 1970s, there were men with short haircuts and immaculate shaves, and men with well-trimmed and shaggy beards, and they wore everything from sport shirts to coats and ties. Some displayed glittering medals on their chests, flagrantly proud of their service despite the deeds they denounced.
One of the witnesses, Garett Reppenhagen, joined the Army a month before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and became a scout-sniper in the 2nd Battalion/63rd Armor, 1st Infantry Division, performing missions in Diyala Province for a year. His father served in Vietnam but didn’t talk much about it before he died of Agent Orange-related cancer.

One story the younger Reppenhagen told was about having to use an old M-60 machine gun from the Vietnam War—an ancient relic in his telling—that broke down and had to be fired in single shots. Reppenhagen’s testimony was not aimed at his former comrades (he was honorably discharged in May 2005), but at the conduct of the war from the top down. “Confusion goes on every day in Iraq,” he reported. “We went to Iraq to defend their country, but found we had to kill civilians to protect ourselves. The war is the atrocity.”

You couldn’t help liking Sergio Kochergin, a former scout-sniper in the 1st Battalion/7th Marines. Part of the invasion force, Kochergin told me that the rules of engagement created situations that led to inappropriate actions, such as the order he received to shoot anybody on the road with a bag and a shovel. “After a month and a half, it was make your own decision.” At first, he recalled, “the people were incredibly nice, offered us showers. By August we started getting IEDs.” Now studying psychology at the University of Oregon, Kochergin has PTSD and finds the VA not much help.

Several witnesses had photos from their tours in Iraq that were shown on large electronic screens. Beyond documenting their service and showing examples of the weaponry they described, the images revealed the terrifying bleakness of the desert and mountains. Whatever you thought of our generation’s war and this one, you couldn’t duck the conclusion that Iraq is Vietnam without water.

Screaming Eagles trooper Dave Adams, who was in the invasion, remembered little girls tossing small purple flowers—for about two weeks, while city workers went without pay and businesses were shut in areas closed for security. Then the sniper fire began.

Adams blamed the shift on top leaders “in stuffy Pentagon rooms” who didn’t understand the Iraqis or what their lives were like. After coming home, Adams was hostile to protestors until a buddy called to tell him about several friends who had been killed. Now an active antiwar organizer, he told me: “I’ll be doing this the rest of my life, I’m sure of it.”

Captain Luis Montalvan, the highest-ranking IVAW member — having served in the Army for 17 years — testified about accountability and corruption in the military. Montalvan has been diagnosed with PTSD and is currently struggling to receive services and support from the VA.

James Gilligan’s voice broke as he described watching fire being directed into an Afghan village. Jason Lemieux, a former Marine sergeant who served three tours in Iraq from 2003-06, participated in the invasion and march to Baghdad. He said he “fought in a war that was already lost.” Joshua Casteel served eight years in the Army, including a tour as an Arabic linguist and interrogator at Abu Ghraib.

When I left late Saturday afternoon, the other side was represented on the street by Eagles Up, which describes itself as “part of the pro-war lobby.” Five white-haired men and a middle-aged African-American woman with their backs to the Winter Soldier Investigation held several flags—The Stars and Stripes, Marine Corps, Navy—and signs that said “Honk for victory.” The drive-by commitment was friendly.

The next morning it drizzled, and the sunshine patriots were gone.

William F. Crandell has been a veterans advocate and writer since returning from service as an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam. He joined Vietnam Veterans of America in 1983 while completing his doctorate in 20th century American history. Crandell recently retired from VA’s Office of Inspector General.

 

 

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