Winter Soldier: Phyllis Bennis on the loss of media interest in the Iraq war
MATTHEW PALEVSKY, JOURNALIST: The second day of testimony is here of Winter Soldier, and I’m standing here with Phyllis Bennis from the Institute of Policy Studies. Phyllis, why is it that the corporate media hasn’t really been covering this event, veteran soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan?
PHYLLIS BENNIS, SENIOR ANALYST, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY STUDIES: There’s actually been a huge amount of media coverage, but almost all of it has been from the international press, not from the US press. And it’s, I must say, not a surprise, ’cause it’s what leads to the situation we have in this country now, where huge numbers of people believe the war is over, that there are less than 3,000 Americans that have been killed. People have no idea what the Iraqi dead levels are. And a recent poll by the Pew Center for the people in the press at the Maryland University indicates that in the period of most of 2007, media coverage of Iraq was only 15 percent of the overall media coverage. Now, to me, when we have hundreds of thousands of troops involved, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties, billions and now trillions of dollars in costs, that’s only 15 percent, that’s horrifying and shocking. What’s even worse is that in the period from November of last year, November 2007, through the end of February of this year, just a few weeks ago, the number has dropped from 15 percent to simply one percent. Just one percent of the media coverage has anything to do with the war in Iraq. One of the things that we’re talking about here at the Winter Soldier hearings, Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan, is to look at what the needs are of the troops. So they’re being very clear. Their demands are, one, a fast and immediate and total withdrawal of all troops, two, take good care of the veterans when they come home, and three, reparations for the Iraqi people. All three of those are necessary. If we’re serious about honoring the troops, we have to start by listening to what they say. That means, first of all, make sure they’re in healthy enough conditions to be able to talk, to tell their stories; second, means that at an official level, and this should happen in Congress, there should be hearings where veterans themselves—not General Petraeus, not Admiral Fallon, but the grunts, as they call themselves, the boots on the ground, the privates and the corporals and the sergeants who are responsible for implementing these illegal policies will have an opportunity to tell their stories, to be heard, to be listened to. And that’s what we’ve been missing in this country. We’ve heard from the generals; we’ve heard from the admirals; we’ve heard from the politicians. Now it’s the veterans. One of the panels today dealt with the question of racism, the question of how racism at the highest levels—. One of the vets said, and I thought it was a very apt way to put it, that the slippery slope of morality goes from top to bottom, not from bottom to top. They don’t start racist ideas at the lowest levels, at the lowest ranks of the military; it starts at the top and it filters down. The panels here that focused on what soldiers did in Iraq and Afghanistan were called panels on the rules of engagement. From the beginning, the rules of engagement called for violations of international law. But I think we have to be clear in recognizing how incredibly brave it is for these soldiers and sailors to get up and say what they did and what they saw being done, because we do know that the fact that it starts at the top and that sets the terms for it, it’s not a defense to committing illegal acts. So it’s an incredibly brave action for these individuals to in a sense confess what they have done and recognize that it came from the top. They were following orders to do these things. And that’s a grim reality for people in this country who believe that our country doesn’t torture people. The question now is: who takes responsibility? What we’re seeing is this incredible moment when these young soldiers themselves are taking responsibility for these violations, but the job for the rest of us who have the opportunity to see these statements is to go back to Congress and to the White House and say, “You are responsible for this, and we are going to hold you responsible first.” Then, once we’ve allowed veterans to heal, then we’ll worry about their accountability. But let’s start where it begins; let’s start at the top.
PALEVSKY: And what will the results be of Winter Soldier when it’s over?
BENNIS: I think the results are going to be very much like it was in 1971 during Vietnam, when, partly because we didn’t have the Internet, of course, we didn’t have the kind of instant access that we now do, but it was very few people who really knew about the Winter Soldier hearings at first, when they were held in Detroit in the middle of winter. And bits and pieces got out on TV, but most of it wasn’t known. Later there was another set of hearings in Washington, the famous one where the vets threw their medals back over the wall. But only then it began to seep out; the word began to spread. It took time. It was a slow process. But over time that set of hearings, those statements by the veterans themselves who said My Lai was not an aberration, that there was a My Lai in Vietnam every day, and that My Lai was built in to illegal occupation—the same thing we’re hearing here today. Abu Ghraib was not an aberration; Haditha was not an aberration; these were not bad apples. These were people carrying out the rules of engagement they were told to carry out. Some of them said they’d change the rules of engagement every day. That doesn’t make the war legal. None of the candidates are planning to end this war. The Democrats use the language “we have to end the war,” but their definition of ending the war would leave somewhere between 35,000 and 75,000 troops in Iraq permanently for a host of reasons that they come up with, none of which are legal. But they’re not talking about ending the war. So that has to be our job, to say if we’re serious about having a choice in this election, somebody has to be there saying we have to end the war, which means bring home all the troops, all the mercenaries, close the business. Then we can begin the process of making good on our obligations to the people of Iraq. That’s what the veterans are saying here today.
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