Fight Club

A Philly-based veterans' group testifies against the Iraq War.

By St. John Barned-Smith
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 14, 2008

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Winter of our discontent: Kelly Dougherty sees this week's trip to Washington as part of an "incremental process" of ending the war.

It takes Iraq Veterans Against the War's (IVAW) national membership coordinator and Iraq vet Sholom Keller two cigarettes and 45 minutes to lay out all the problems with the Iraq War.

Members of Congress will hear longer and more detailed testi-mony from Keller's comrades when active-duty and veteran servicemen testify on Capitol Hill this week before members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The D.C. trip is the Philly-based IVAW's latest action in its Winter Soldier campaign, which began just more than a month ago when the group's members gathered in Maryland to present their personal experiences to the world via satellite and streaming video on the Internet, which reached more than 30,000 viewers on each day of the conference.

The Winter Soldier campaign, modeled after antiwar actions by Vietnam War veterans, alludes to a reference by Thomas Paine, who called winter soldiers "people who stand up for the soul of their country, even in its darkest hours."

IVAW will probably find a receptive and "less disinterested" audience when it testifies in D.C., according to Lawrence University American studies professor Jerald Podair, because the group will testify before a more informal caucus rather than a full-fledged committee.

He says it will be hard for any of the caucus members to criticize the members of IVAW, given their veteran status, but that IVAW must deliver its testimony carefully.

"The testimony is a two-edged sword. There's a limit on what even a pro-war senator or representative can say, but what tripped up the [Vietnam] winter soldiers was that some of the things they said weren't provable, and they lost a lot of credibility."

But IVAW executive director Kelly Dougherty isn't worried about the potential dangers of testifying under oath. "We chose vets who would present testimony based on our ability to verify their stories," she says.

For Keller, the aims are simple--to "let facts be submitted to a candid world," he says, reading from the battered copy of the Declaration of Independence he's pulled out of his khaki cargo pants.

Keller wants to "place blame with the people who make policy," he says.

The chance to address a group of congressmen under oath will also be beneficial for IVAW, says Podair, because, "It will give them the opportunity to make statements and charges that will force the congressmen in actual committees to introduce actual legislation to end the war."

Dougherty acknowledges that the testimony alone probably won't goad Congress to action, but sees the event as part of an "incremental process," and says her real goal is to "keep a buzz around these veterans speaking out against the war."

Equally important, she says, is the need to refocus the attention of a disinterested Congress and fatigued populace.

The testimony is also unique in that it comes mostly from servicemen and infantry, according to materials released by Francesca Lo Basso, IVAW's media coordinator.

"This testimony represents a shift from reports to Congress from high-level commanders and political appointees to direct accounts from boots-on-the-ground soldiers and Marines about the situation in Iraq."

The topics to be covered in the testimony, the press materials explain, include the administration's "intentional deception and lies" and the "ever shifting justifications" for its continued presence in Iraq. Veterans will also speak about the problems surrounding the armed forces' stop-loss policy.

Other IVAW members will discuss problems on the ground in Iraq, Keller says. "They're going to try to shatter the myth that we're helping the Iraqi people," he adds. Others, meanwhile, will take on the military's ambiguous rules of engagement, while still others will discuss the degraded state of the VA health system.

"The Army isn't the same Army it was when I joined [in 2001]," Keller says, "It isn't even the same Army it was in 2005." The reason for the strain, he adds, is that the Iraq War has scared off soldiers who might otherwise have served their entire careers in the military. As the military scrambles to find more soldiers to replace those who no longer reenlist, those who remain suffer from repeated deployments.

"Americans need to hear these stories," Keller says. He discounts naysayers and potential critics who might argue his members' stories are individual and isolated events by arguing, "Each story taken on its own is a gloomy and depressing war story, but taken together, it serves as a harsh indictment."

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