The ongoing U.S. occupation of Iraq prompted a growing number of U.S. veterans to campaign against the war, causing a publicity nightmare for the U.S. army.
An article on The Guardian Unlimited covered an anti-war rally in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans, where hundreds of U.S. veterans, military families and hurricane survivors marched to mark the third anniversary of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
"I was in Iraq when Katrina happened and I watched U.S. citizens being washed ashore in New Orleans," one veteran says. "War is oppression: we could be setting up hospitals right here. America is war-addicted. America is neglecting its poor."
A number of Vietnam veterans also participated in the rally. For all the attempts to deny a link between Vietnam and Iraq, both sets of veterans see disturbing parallels between the two wars.
Thomas Brinson survived the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968. "Iraq is just Arabic for Vietnam, like the poster says - the same horror, the same tears," he says.
“Innocent people were killed”
A 22-year-old veteran, who served in Iraq from April 2003 to March 2004, seemed deeply disturbed by his experience in the war-torn country. Michael Blake says that U.S. troops were told little about Iraq, Iraqis or Islam before serving there; other than a book of Arabic phrases, "the message was always: 'Islam is evil' and 'They hate us.' Most of the guys I was with believed it."
Blake, an activist with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), a group formed less than two years ago that organized the anti-war rally, says the turning point for him came one day when his unit spent hours guarding a group of Iraqi women and children whose men were being interrogated. He recalls: “The men were taken away and the women were screaming and crying, and I just remember thinking: this was exactly what Saddam used to do - and now we're doing it."
Blake admits that he witnessed innocent Iraqi civilians being killed indiscriminately, thought he says that he did not take part in any atrocities himself. "When IEDs [Improvised Explosive Devices] would go off by the side of the road, the instructions were - or the practice was - to basically shoot up the landscape, anything that moved. And that kind of thing would happen a lot… so innocent people were killed,” he says.
Becoming a peace activist has been a “cleansing” experience, Blake says. "I'll never be normal again. I'll always have a sense of guilt."
Blake is also angry that American people seem so untouched by the war and by the grave human rights abuses committed by U.S. soldiers there. "The American media doesn't cover it and they don't care. The American people aren't seeing the real war - what's really happening there."
"We want the Iraqi people to know that we stand with them," says Blake. "I met an Iraqi at one of the public meetings I was talking at recently. He came up to me and told me he was originally from the town where I had been stationed. And I just went up to this complete stranger and hugged him and I said, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.' And you know what? He told me it was OK. And it was beautiful…. That was redemption".
Another 24-year-old veteran, Alan Shackleton, says that he “ran over a little kid and killed him ... and that's about it."
"We are very, very sorry for what we did to the Iraqi people.” he says.
Joe Hatcher talked about his own time in the military and the hostility he has met from pro-war activists at home, saying that they attacked anti-war activists claiming that it is “ruining the morale of the soldier and encouraging the enemy”.
"I scraped dead bodies off the pavements with a shovel and threw them in trash bags and left them there on the side of the road. And I really don't think the anti-war movement is what is infuriating people."
“The total disregard for human life”
Jody Casey, who recently left the army and joined the vets, supports Iraqis’ accusations that U.S. occupation forces caused numerous civilian deaths since the invasion. The Iraqi civilian death toll was estimated at about 100,000 in September 2004 and is considerably higher today.
The 29-year-old still strongly supports the military but says that he is speaking out in the hope of correcting many of the mistakes being made. He served as a scout sniper for a year until last February, based, like Blake, in the Sunni triangle.
He says that the turning point for him came after he returned from Iraq and watched videos that he and his comrades shot during their raids in the country. After reviewing these videos, he decided "it was not right", because soldiers there had a way of dehumanizing the Iraqis.
What upset him the most about Iraq is "The total disregard for human life…If you start looking at them (Iraqis) as humans, and stuff like that, then how are you going to kill them?… You totally take the human being out of it and make them into a video game."
“I mean, you do what you do at the time because you feel like you need to. But then to watch it get kind of covered up, shoved under a rug ... 'Oh, that did not happen'."
"I have seen innocent people being killed. IEDs go off and [you] just zap any farmer that is close to you. You know, those people were out there trying to make a living, but on the other hand, you get hit by four or five of those IEDs and you get pretty tired of that, too."
He says the troops who served in his area before his unit arrived advised them to keep spades on their vehicles to throw them if they kill innocent Iraqi civilians to give the appearance that the dead Iraqi was digging a hole for a roadside bomb.
Casey says he didn't participate in any such killings himself, but notes that the overall atmosphere was that "you could basically kill whoever you wanted - it was that easy. You did not even have to get off and dig a hole or anything. All you had to do was have some kind of picture. You're driving down the road at three in the morning. There's a guy on the side of the road, you shoot him ... you throw a shovel off."