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How the U.S. Military Turned Me into a Terrorist

A powerful excerpt from 'Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan' lays bare the racism at the core of the Iraq occupation.
 
 
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In March of this year, a courageous group of veterans brought the war home, at a historic event held in Silver Spring, Md., inspired by Vietnam veterans a generation before. "Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan" convened more than 200 soldiers who have served in the so-called "War on Terror;" like their fellow soldiers before them, who shared stories that laid bare the nightmare of Vietnam, these veterans bore witness to the crimes that have been committed in Americans' names during the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The hearings lasted four days; in their testimony, soldiers described how the discarding of the military's rules of engagement and its systematic dehumanization of Iraqi and Afghan civilians has led to horrible acts of violence against innocent men, women and children. "These are not isolated incidents," was a common refrain, even as the episodes they described seemed exceptionally brutal. For many of the veterans, it was the first time they had told their stories.

Now, the searing testimony has been compiled in an important new book: Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupation , edited by Aaron Glantz and published by Haymarket Books. I strongly encourage you to buy the book, preferably though the Web site of Iraq Veterans Against the War, which organized the Winter Soldier hearings and continues to hold similar events in cities across the country. All proceeds of books purchased through IVAW will go to support its crucial work.

The following excerpt comes from Michael Prysner, a corporal in the Army Reserve who came home in February 2004.

-- Liliana Segura, Editor, War on Iraq Special Coverage

When I first joined the army, I was told that racism no longer existed in the military. A legacy of inequality and discrimination was suddenly washed away by something called the Equal Opportunity Program. We would sit through mandatory classes, and every unit had an EO representative to ensure that no elements of racism could resurface. The army seemed firmly dedicated to smashing any hint of racism.

Then September 11 happened, and I began to hear new words like "towel-head," and "camel jockey," and the most disturbing, "sand nigger." These words did not initially come from my fellow lower-enlisted soldiers, but from my superiors: my platoon sergeant, my first sergeant, my battalion commander. All the way up the chain of command, these viciously racist terms were suddenly acceptable.

When I got to Iraq in 2003, I learned a new word, "haji." Haji was the enemy. Haji was every Iraqi. He was not a person, a father, a teacher, or a worker. It's important to understand where this word came from. To Muslims, the most important thing is to take a pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. Someone who has taken this pilgrimage is a haji. It's something that, in traditional Islam, is the highest calling in the religion. We took the best thing from Islam and made it into the worst thing.

Since the creation of this country, racism has been used to justify expansion and oppression. Native Americans were called "savages," the Africans were called all sorts of things to excuse slavery, and Vietnam veterans know the multitude of words used to justify that imperialist war.

So haji was the word we used. It was the word we used on this particular mission I'm going to talk about. We've heard a lot about raids and kicking down the doors of people's houses and ransacking their houses, but this was a different kind of raid.

We never got any explanation for our orders. We were only told that a group of five or six houses was now property of the U.S. military, and we had to go in and make those families leave their houses.

We went to these houses and informed the families that their homes were no longer theirs. We provided them no alternative, nowhere to go, no compensation. They were very confused and very scared. They did not know what to do and would not leave, so we had to remove them.

One family in particular, a woman with two small girls, a very elderly man, and two middle-aged men; we dragged them from their house and threw them onto the street. We arrested the men because they refused to leave, and we sent them off to prison.

A few months later I found out, as we were short interrogators and I was given that assignment. I oversaw and participated in hundreds of interrogations. I remember one in particular that I'm going to share with you. It was the moment that really showed me the nature of this occupation.

This particular detainee was already stripped down to his underwear, hands behind his back and a sandbag on his head. I never saw this man's face. My job was to take a metal folding chair and smash it against the wall next to his head -- he was faced against the wall with his nose touching it -- while a fellow soldier screamed the same question over and over again. No matter what his answer, my job was to slam the chair against the wall. We did this until we got tired.

I was told to make sure he kept standing up, but something was wrong with his leg. He was injured, and he kept falling to the ground. The sergeant in charge would come and tell me to get him up on his feet, so I'd have to pick him up and put him against the wall. He kept going down. I kept pulling him up and putting him against the wall. My sergeant was upset with me for not making him continue to stand. He picked him up and slammed him against the wall several times. Then he left. When the man went down on the ground again, I noticed blood pouring down from under the sandbag. I let him sit, and when I noticed my sergeant coming again, I would tell him quickly to stand up. Instead of guarding my unit from this detainee, I realized I was guarding the detainee from my unit.

I tried hard to be proud of my service, but all I could feel was shame. Racism could no longer mask the reality of the occupation. These are human beings. I've since been plagued by guilt. I feel guilt any time I see an elderly man, like the one who couldn't walk who we rolled onto a stretcher and told the Iraqi police to take him away. I feel guilt any time I see a mother with her children, like the one who cried hysterically and screamed that we were worse than Saddam as we forced her from her home. I feel guilt any time I see a young girl, like the one I grabbed by the arm and dragged into the street.

We were told we were fighting terrorists; the real terrorist was me, and the real terrorism is this occupation. Racism within the military has long been an important tool to justify the destruction and occupation of another country. Without racism, soldiers would realize that they have more in common with the Iraqi people than they do with the billionaires who send us to war.

I threw families onto the street in Iraq, only to come home and find families thrown onto the street in this country, in this tragic and unnecessary foreclosure crisis. Our enemies are not five thousand miles away, they are right here at home, and if we organize and fight, we can stop this war, we can stop this government, and we can create a better world.

Aaron Glantz is the author of two upcoming books on Iraq: The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans (UC Press) and Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan (Haymarket). He edits the Web site WarComesHome.org .