Antiwar veterans of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan took their case to Capitol Hill Thursday, baring their souls with stories of killings of innocent civilians, torture and wrongful detentions.
"On several occasions our convoys came upon bodies that had been lying on the road, sometimes for weeks," said Marine Corps veteran Vincent Emanuele, who served in al-Qaim near the Syrian border in 2004 and 2005.
"When encountering these bodies standard procedure was to run over the corpses, sometimes even stopping and taking pictures, which was also standard practice when encountering the dead in Iraq," he told the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which organized the hearing.
Emanuele also said that U.S. military personnel often took "pot shots" at cars passing by.
"Our rules of engagement stated that we should first fire warning shots into the ground in front of the car, then the engine block, and the windshield. That is if the car was even moving in the first place," he said. "Many times cars that actually had pulled off to the side of the road were also shot at."
Thursday’s hearing was an outgrowth of an event in Maryland earlier this year called "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations." For four days in March, dozens of veterans of the two wars testified about atrocities they personally committed or witnessed while deployed overseas.
At the time, many of the veterans expressed a desire to take their case to Capitol Hill. Thursday they got their wish.
Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, addressed a panel of veterans at the start of the hearing.
"We now have an opportunity to hear not from the military’s top brass but directly from you," she said, "the very soldiers who put your lives on the line to carry out this president’s failed policies."
Nine veterans of the Iraq war told their stories before members of Congress and a packed gallery. One of the veterans had also served in Afghanistan. About 40 veterans were in the audience.
The veterans spoke about extremely lax rules of engagement handed down by commanding officers, which they said virtually guaranteed atrocities would be committed, and which in turn created a violent backlash among Iraqi people and a continued cycle of violence.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Luis Carlos Montalvan served directly under Gen. David Petraeus in 2005 and 2006.
"We have beaten our drum to try to raise the issue of the dereliction of duty committed by a number of generals who have been promoted and promoted again and continue to perpetuate the lies [that] paint a rosy picture of the situation in Iraq," he said.
Montalvan said he personally witnessed U.S. military personnel carrying out waterboarding, the mock-drowning interrogation technique that has long been considered torture by U.S. courts.
Former Srgt. Adam Kokesh presented a picture of himself standing, smiling, in front of a dead Iraqi civilian that another marine had shot.
"This is a picture that I’m very ashamed of, having posed with this dead Iraqi as a trophy picture," he said. "But what felt awkward to me at the time was not so much that I was taking the picture, but the fact that I had not killed this man and I was taking a trophy from somebody else’s kill."
Kokesh said the person in the trophy photo was an innocent civilian whose car was accidentally "lit up" by marines.
Kokesh referenced similar photos that surfaced during and after the Vietnam war some of which were presented at a "Winter Soldier" gathering organized by Vietnam veterans 37 years ago.
"At the first Winter Soldier investigation in 1971, one of the Vietnam veterans held up a similar photograph and said ‘Don’t ever let your government do this to you. Don’t ever let your government put you in a position where this attitude towards death and disregard for human life is acceptable or common.’ And we are still doing this to service members every day as long as these occupations continue," he added.
Kokesh said his Marine Corps Civil Affairs team, including a major, was present when the trophy photo was taken. Numerous other marines also snapped their picture with the corpse, he said.
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War hope this week’s hearing will spark an investigation by a full Congressional committee and speed the end of the wars.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) praised the veterans who spoke Thursday. "I want to thank you for having more courage than many members of Congress have for coming here in defiance of what you have been instructed and taught to do," she said. "They attempted to tell you that you should be satisfied by everything that you saw and everything that you did and everything you witnessed, but you’re not. I praise and honor you for that."
The veterans’ testimony, however, may be overshadowed by an unrelated legislative maneuver that occurred just steps away from their hearing room Thursday: the House of Representatives defeated a $162.5 billion proposal to continue funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While many antiwar activists were elated by the news from the House floor, their victory will likely be only symbolic, and short-lived.
President George W. Bush had threatened to veto the spending bill anyway, citing the time line it would have imposed for withdrawing troops, and what he described as unnecessary domestic spending. Knowing that, and angered over the way Democratic leaders handled the bill, 131 Republicans abstained from the vote. That left those who opposed the new funding with a surprising plurality of the vote.