2008/10/02:Anti-war vets fight unfair Iraq narrative - IVAW-Madison

Anti-war vets fight unfair Iraq narrative
The Badger Herald
by Kyle Szarzynski

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The corporate media informs us that American soldiers are mostly a conservative bunch, intent on bravely carrying out orders in the fight against the generic threat of the day. According to the narrative, they are willing to sacrifice everything for "the American way of life," and they comprise the one obstacle between our freedoms and, currently, Islamo-fascism. Their courage and selflessness make them unrivaled heroes in the American consciousness.

The national myth of the soldier — a conspicuous feature in all militaristic societies — is so strong that it has become inseparable from any policy discussion about the military, foreign policy or war. Mainstream dialogue makes it impossible to discuss the merits of occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan without first addressing things like "abandoning the troops" and "leaving the troops in harm's way."

During the first presidential debate, John McCain managed to almost completely avoid a substantive discussion about the war in Iraq by using exactly such rhetoric. He assured the audience that the troops were doing a fine job defeating the terrorists and accused his opponent of not letting them "finish the job." He also made it clear that, if he were the next president, the several thousand military deaths would not be in vain. As for the lack of democracy, corporate conquest, stupendous bloodshed and violation of national sovereignty — well, he was a bit short on the details.

The intent and effect of the ideologically constructed American soldier should be clear: It neutralizes moral concern with imperialist wars by portraying it as an attack on the troops. Obviously, this is nothing but untrue, and it seems to me that those responsible for shipping the troops off to kill and die in a conflict based on lies should be the ones on the defensive.

But the corporate media is a powerful force, so for many Americans, the distinction between being anti-war and anti-soldier is not always clear. Making it more lucid can best be done by the soldiers themselves, and this is precisely what Winter Soldier, a national touring event featuring testimony from Iraq veterans, accomplishes.

Hosted by the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, a courageous and resolute organization, Winter Soldier was held at the Memorial Union Theater this past weekend. Inexplicably, the event received no attention from The Badger Herald news section, even as its rival felt it important enough to allot it front-page coverage.

The 1,200 IVAW members — a group which favors immediate withdrawal, reparations for the Iraqi people and full benefits for returning veterans — radically depart from the image constructed for them by forces on the right. They know better than anyone that the talk about bringing democracy to Iraq is bullshit, just as they know that those eager to send them to war are the same ones eager to screw them once they get home.

The dozen veterans who testified this past weekend spoke of the military not as a force for good, but as an institution that preys on the vulnerable and contorts them into fodder for conquest. Within the army itself, bigotry is rampant. According to their testimony, sexual assault is about as common as the use of the term "towelhead" and "haji," while LGBT personnel endure viscous homophobia and the constant threat of discharge.

The prejudice within the military serves as a launching pad for occupying people against their will, which requires a thorough process of racist indoctrination to justify. The veterans spoke of the atrocities they witnessed in Iraq with heartfelt candor. One testifier recounted his experience working at Abu Graib, where prisoners ranging in age from 10 to 80 would routinely die from malnutrition, lack of medicine, crossfire and torture. As he stated, most the prisoners probably had nothing to do with the insurgency. Military occupation is a dirty business.

For many veterans, returning home is just the beginning of maltreatment from the military. Several veterans recounted their ongoing struggles with substance abuse, anxiety, depression, panic attacks and uncontrollable rage. Post-traumatic stress disorder has wounded tens of thousands of returning veterans, often resulting in broken social relationships, unemployment, violence and even suicide. (The number of Iraq veteran suicides even exceeds combat deaths).

According to the testimonials, the Veterans Health Administration offers woefully inadequate resources for mental health problems. Just like health insurance companies, the VA will often refuse treatment by deeming it a "pre-existing condition" or just label the disease generically and dismiss it with a pill or two.

Anti-war veterans have reached the conclusion that, perhaps with the exception of the Iraqis themselves, they have suffered more than anyone from the war in Iraq. The invasion and occupation have not been witness to idyllic valor for a righteous cause; they have used the troops as a means to an end.

For the brave members of the IVAW, military service has nothing to do with what is instilled in the popular consciousness. They have exposed the truth of military service, including what World War I soldier-poet Wilfred Owen called "The old Lie: [It is sweet and right to fight and die for your country.]"


Kyle Szarzynski (szarzynski@wisc.edu) is a senior majoring in history and philosophy.