"What's going on in Iraq?" That was the belabored question members of the Senate Armed Forces Committee peppered the U.S. military leadership with the other day when they appeared, grudgingly, to testify about the disaster they are overseeing in Iraq.
The senators are asking the wrong soldiers. If the Committee really wants to know what's happening in Iraq, they should ask representatives of the million soldiers who have already served in Afghanistan and Iraq to come up to Capitol Hill and tell some war stories.
Did you hear the extraordinary pained silence when Senator McCain asked Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Peter Pace if he had a hint a year ago that the war would be going so wrong today? Finally General Pace acknowledged, "No." He went on to testify that the "enemy" cannot defeat the U.S. military in battle but that they believe they can wear us down as a nation. That won't happen, insisted the general, because U.S. soldiers are proud of what they're doing and are reenlisting in record numbers.
Undoubtedly some of those million troops who have rotated through the Afghan and Iraqi theaters agree with General Pace, but the Armed Forces Committee ought to invite the testimony of soldiers such as the ones I profile in my book Mission Rejected. These are soldiers who have been on the ground in Iraq, awarded metals for their valor, seen and done things unimaginable to most of us.
Clifton Hicks is an example. He told me a story the senators should hear, about when he arrived at the remains of wedding party in Iraq where the revelers had been shooting AK-47s into the air to celebrate. U.S. troops, Hicks told me when we met near his base in Germany, thought those gunshots were meant for them and they shot at the building where the wedding was taking place.
"The innocent people who were partying, just trying to celebrate a wedding, three of them had been shot," said Hicks. "One man had been shot in the arm, a girl had been shot in the leg, and one younger girl was dead - laying on the ground dead. She was six years old, laying on the ground, face down, palms up, and a little flowery dress. She was stone dead. Mothers and women are all bawling and crying. The men are all standing in shock. We bandaged up the one guy. The one little girl was crying, she was maybe ten, shot in the leg. Everyone is sitting around like, 'Yeah, they killed some little kid.'"
Hicks says the soldiers who did the shooting reported to their command, "and their command said, 'Charlie Mike [continue mission], just keep going.' They packed up and drove off. So we just hopped in our Humvees and we drove off too."
"And that was the end of it. They applied first aid to the people who had been shot. The girl who was dead, they just left her there on the floor. We drove off and continued the mission."
Clifton looks shell shocked in the Germany Holiday Inn lobby where we talk as he tells the story, distraught and puzzled and disturbed all at the same time. "Continue the mission? I was like, 'What the hell is that all about?' We're supposed to be here to rebuild this country, to help these people, and we just shot three people. We just killed somebody's daughter. And we drove off. That's never going to be reported in the news. No one is ever going to know about it except people who were there."
This is the type of testimony that will help the Senate Foreign Relations Committee understand what is wrong in Iraq. Of course hear from Secretary Rumsfeld and General Pace. It is critical to hear their responses. But call soldiers to testify with experiences such as those traumatizing Clifton Hicks. They're not hard to find. Later this month Veterans for Peace is holding its annual conference in Seattle. The Committee would benefit by sending some staffers out to Seattle to scout for witnesses to appear at future hearings. Better yet, the members of the Committee should travel to Seattle and hold field hearings in conjunction with the Veterans for Peace conference.