In the February of 1971, the first Winter Soldier Investigation was held to share testimonials of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. They spoke of the wide array of war crimes and the widespread recklessness with human life (both Vietnamese and Troops) as seen on the battlefields of Vietnam.
The vets that tesitified were marked as 'traitors' by conservative wingnuts and were otherwise written off as "false-veterans", whatever that means. This past weekend, Iraq Veterans Against the War held similar hearings to address the corruption that is orchestrating the current occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though the reception was perhaps a little warmer, you'd think after more than three decades and what is apparently just the allusion of social change, that a Winter Soldier in 2008 would yield a different reception from the media and command a hightened sense of awareness from an otherwise ambivalent public.
Democracy Now! was perhaps the most recognized outlet to cover the event. The Washington Post hid away the despicable blurb they wrote about it in the Metro section, only to distort the reality of what went on by putting in a very disproportionate amount of coverage about the coalition of scumbags that call themselves the 'gathering of eagles' (They show up to funerals of fallen soldiers against the wishes of the families, and launch physical attacks on anti-war demonstrators; real stand up fellas). These goons were outside of the college on Friday, and one of them infiltrated the super tight security of the building to scream some crap about John Kerry, and was then detained for trespassing. Boo hoo.
Right. So I was at the National Labor College where it was being held (it ran from Thursday the 13th through the 16th), and was a volunteer & media person. I was taking pictures for the NY Indymedia Center. Overall the weekend was very much of the out of body experience variety. It was so unique in its mission. It's impact proved self evident, they provided a safe space for soldiers to speak and share the dehumanizing affects of such gruesome occupations, and in doing so took a massive step to end these fucking atrocious wars.
All of the testimony hit me really hard, especially that of the vets. All of it was so emotional and intense, and unbelievable. While each story was unique from any other one, after a while they all sort of melded together to make this composite of fucked up realities that they dealt with everyday, and have been dealing with since. There was this one veteran, I can't remember his name, but he wore a mohawk. His name is Kristofer Goldsmith. Most of the testimonials were accompanied by photo slides, and that was significant of course. It's much more difficult to refute testimony and say someone is a "fake veteran" if they have direct evidence to what their speaking of.
His slides just blew everything out of the water, they were so chilling. While in Iraq he was given the task of "identifying" civilian casualties that resulted from the mortar rounds, so he would stay behind to take photos of what he called "the faces of the dead". In reality they were never actually used to identify anything, they were used as these sick trophies for confirmed kill of soldiers in his platoon.
In spite of all of this, the photos were strikingly beautiful, it was so hard to look away despite how sick to my stomach it made me feel at the same time. While I was in the audience looking at them, I couldn't help but take a look to see other peoples' facial reactions and they were just as intense. With every other set of slides, it was easy to fix my eyes onto the floor if the images were too horrific. These struck a serious chord in me. That's pretty rare for me, I usually get caught up in the details of the texture or color and can never get too emotionally invested. In that sense these were so successful. The details were beautiful, but it was obvious that the the texture and colors you were looking at was someone's shredded rotting skin, or someone's coagulated blood that turned into a seductive deep purple. It was impossible to accept this beauty without also acknowledging that a persons life ended brutally, and they will be no more, and the people that caused this have no qualms with it.
In the center of the panel you can see Camilo Mejia. His story is truly inspiring, and I encourage you to look it up. I met him in a very abrupt and strange manner over the weekend. I did an illustration of him for WIN Magazine (The War Resisters League) when they reviewed his book, so I felt like it would make sense to say hello. As you can probably imagine it was completely unreal to meet him. I blurted out how much his story inspired me, and all this praise and about the illustration, and proceeded to awkwardly bow out, only leaving him room to say "Wow."
One of the last panels addressed the cost of the war at home. The testimony of Carlos Arredondo and Fernando Suarez del Solar, proved to be the most difficult stories to take in when trying to maintain my composure. Both men lost their sons in the war, and have been outreaching all over the world to make sure no one forgets, and because it is all they can do now. It was just really really sad. They reminded me of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, that protested the disappearance of their children in Argentina during the Dirty War. They didn't care what political risks they were running by protesting, all they cared about were the well-being of their children, and they wanted answers. Why did their children have to die? And certainly why did they die for such empty reasons? Why is it still happening?
The whole time I was listening and looking at their slides, I could only think about my uncle. He's a recruiter, and although it's impossible that he recruited their sons, all I could think about were all the people he has recruited, and how many of those people have stories that ended like these. So I got really mad, and then mad at myself. Of all of the times I've ever been to the base where he lived or I spoke to him I've never been able to say anything sincere to him about what he does. To be honest would mean that my family would go through another round of hardcore confrontations, and my grandparents would get pissed and so on. The more I thought about it the more shitty I felt, so I just tried to zone out my thinking.
Anyway, here is some footage of other veteran testimony. You can also go to WWW.IVAW.ORG to find out more about Iraq Veterans Against the War, and see more of the panels from the investigation.
That last video has two veterans, Drew and Jon that live in Vermont now and make paper out of combat fatigues. From what I understand it's a pretty intense and beautiful process.
At the end of April both of them will be coming down to MICA to conduct a workshop and take part in this silent art auction that's going to benefit IVAW. So far it's been a hell of a lot of work to coordinate, and there is a helluva lot more to do, but at the end it'll be worth it, and the event will be pretty amazing. We're going to try to get a lot of vets to come down, and invite kids from the area (out of the mica bubble), and promote the event to schools around Baltimore. There's going to be music, poetry readings from the Warrior Writers work, and so on. It's going to be badass and good.
After talking to my friend Ryan (he came to me with the idea, and knows a lot of vets) it would make a lot of sense and would make the auction more meaningful to get a 50/50 split of work from Iraq Veterans and work from artists in the community.
Unfortunately the vet who made this, Eric Estenzo, is out on the West Coast; but the mural he did is still fucken awesome!