Winter Soldier in Madison
By Robin Gee
October 22, 2008
MADISON, Wis.--"It was while I was serving at Abu Ghraib that I first
saw these [photos in the media]," said Benjamin Thompson, a member of
Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), who served in the Army Reserve
from 1999 to 2007 and as a prison guard at Abu Ghraib from February
2004 to February 2005. "They disgusted me and made me question my
desire to serve."
Thompson was addressing a crowd of about 300 people who gathered last
month for the Madison Winter Soldier event organized by the local
chapter of IVAW and a coalition of area antiwar organizations.
IVAW members from around the Midwest came together to provide
testimony about their deployments in Iraq, their horror at what they
were asked to do there and their mistreatment by the military's
dilapidated health care system upon their return. The event was one
of several taking place across the country since IVAW's first Winter
Soldier held in March in a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Thompson went on to paint a picture of the infamous prison that did
not make it into the headlines. "When I ask people what they think
Abu Ghraib looked like, I hear about these little cells and these
little bars, a concrete structure," said Thompson. "I was in a
concrete structure, where I slept and I was happy about it."
While some prisoners were in cells, he explained, most of the
prisoners were kept in open air--in an indefensible area that was hit
frequently by mortars and stray bullets from nearby battlefields. In
fact, says Thompson, the base was in the middle of one of the most
dangerous areas of Iraq.
Units rounded up whole city blocks of people, he said, and "put them
in the most dangerous place. And my prisoners were killed. They were
killed by mortar fire. They were killed by stray rounds...My
prisoners were killed by malnutrition...by lack of medication and by
lack of sanitation. We relied on contracted services to provide the
basic necessities, and they failed us every day. The food they
provided to these people had rat feces in it...
"We had children in our camps. The youngest I ever ran into was 10.
We had an 80-year-old man who was blind. We had people who died from
lack of heart medication they'd been on for decades...There's so much
horror about Abu Ghraib that I can't even try to share it all with
you, but I want to frame it in a way that you can understand."
Fellow soldiers told of similar horrors and incidents they wish they
could forget. Others spoke of the inherent racism, sexism and
homophobia rampant in the military. All agreed that what they had
imagined upon signing up was nothing like what they faced on the
ground. They all wanted people to understand what they did experience
and why it is so important to speak out about it and stop the war.
Following the soldier panels, the crowd heard from John Stauber,
author of The Best War Ever: Lies, Damn Lies and the War in Iraq, and
Sami Rasouli, an Iraqi-American based in Minnesota who is working on
grassroots humanitarian aid efforts in Iraq.
Vietnam veteran Will Williams closed the testimony by urging the
crowd into the streets of Madison to denounce the war. About 100
people, led by the veterans, many in fatigues and uniforms, stopped
traffic as they marched through the city demanding, "Troops out now!"
At a wrap-up meeting following the event, the organizers decided to
continue to work together to build the antiwar struggle and began
planning for Veterans Day and beyond. At a time when much of the
country is focused on the election of one of two pro-war candidates,
these soldiers are speaking out to remind us where our energies must be spent.
Campus long known for activism churns out few rallies
by Todd Finkelmeyer
Mackenzie Heinrichs is less than two months into her freshman year at
UW-Madison but already is playing an active role in political
protests around town.
She recently helped organize a gathering outside U.S. Rep. Tammy
Baldwin's office to protest the government's $700 billion bill to
bail out the nation's financial services industry. Baldwin voted for
the bailout. Heinrichs then made T-shirts that stated "No Money for
Wall St. and War, Bailout Workers and the Poor!" and participated in
another small protest Oct. 8 that disrupted Baldwin's appearance at
the Memorial Union for a panel discussion on voter issues.
Yet as active and enthusiastic as Heinrichs is herself, she's
frustrated by what she sees as a general apathy among her classmates
toward important political issues -- especially the wars in Iraq and
"One of my biggest beefs is UW-Madison itself has this great history
of protesting, but there are so many people here now who just don't
seem to care about things," said Heinrichs, a Stoughton High School
graduate who is actively involved in the Campus Antiwar Network and
the International Socialist Organization.
Melissa Stelter -- a local activist, a student at Madison Area
Technical College and a self-described C-SPAN addict -- also wishes
more of her peers would be politically active.
"People should take the time to be informed, and if they don't think
they have the time, they should reassess," Stelter said while
protesting the Wall Street bailout with about a dozen other people in
front of the Memorial Union on Oct. 8. "Because this is really
important. These politicians are in Washington, and they seem far
away from us, but they make decisions every day that affect our
lives. I just wish more people would get involved in the discourse
and not only challenge other people's ideas, but have their own ideas
Although students today rarely assemble in large numbers to protest
and make their views known, some say it would nonetheless be a
mistake to label younger people as politically apathetic.
"Most studies that I've seen recently looking at young peoples'
activism have kind of concluded that they use different means these
days," said Kathy Cramer Walsh, a UW-Madison political science
professor. "They tend to be more private means. Things like
'buycotting' -- not buying certain products because of the political
leaning of the company or for fair trade considerations. Or
boycotting certain businesses. And with all the new technologies for
communicating, there may be more political discourse among younger
people now than in the Vietnam era, but it's invisible to those of us
who are older."
One place where young people are traditionally quite visible is in
presidential campaigns, and this year is no different. College
students have turned out in the thousands around the nation to
volunteer for Barack Obama's campaign in particular, and pundits have
long said the youth vote could tip the election in this battleground
state as it did in 2004 and 2000 by delivering narrow victories to
Democrats John Kerry and Al Gore, respectively.
"This current generation is more engaged in politics than most going
back to the 1960s," said Paul Soglin, the former anti-war activist
and six-term Madison mayor who is an adjunct associate professor at
UW-Madison's La Follette School of Public Affairs. "I don't think
there's much question about that. But it's not fed by the danger that
my generation felt due to the war draft."
According to an early October CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll,
65 percent of Americans oppose the war in Iraq, with 34 percent in
favor. Yet, the last anti-war protest in Madison to draw more than a
couple dozen people was back on March 19, when about 100 marched
around the Capitol Square on the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led
invasion of Iraq.
"It's very frustrating," Heinrichs said. "There are so many bad
things going on in the world, and too many people are just sitting
there doing nothing and complaining about their own life. I just
don't understand how people can be content to sit there and take it
when they could be doing something about it."
There are plenty of theories regarding why Madison -- which was one
of the national epicenters for political activism during the late
1960s and early 1970s, when the Vietnam War was becoming less and
less popular -- is no longer a hotbed for grand political protests.
For starters, the absence of a military draft takes away the
immediacy of war for many. Others note that the U.S. death tolls in
Iraq (nearly 4,200) and Afghanistan (more than 600) don't compare to
the number of American lives lost in Vietnam, which was more than 58,000.
"The war now doesn't really touch these students much directly," said
Madison's David Williams, a 1972 UW-Madison graduate, retired
librarian and self-proclaimed "political agitator."
And still others note the special time period in which these major
protests of the past took place.
"It's important to remember that the anti-war movement here in the
1960s didn't just spring up out of nowhere," said Ben Ratliffe, a
2006 UW-Madison graduate and current MATC student who is active in
both the Campus Antiwar Network and the International Socialist
Organization. "There were the civil rights struggles (of the
mid-1950s through the late 1960s). The Jim Crow laws (which mandated
segregation in public facilities) had just been stopped in the South.
It was pretty obvious that getting out into the streets and
organizing could make a change in our world.
"And don't forget, too, that during those times a lot of organizers
were trained to get people out and to rally them. Right now, we're
coming off 30 years of retreat and defeat, so I think it's going to
take time to build up the base of the movement again."
Williams, who played an active role in anti-war protests on the UW
campus four decades ago, says he can understand why it might be
harder these days for students to devote the same kind of time he did
to protest movements.
"Students today, they have to work a hell of a lot harder than I did
when I was in school here," said Williams, who worked for the Chicago
Public Library for 28 years before moving back to Madison in 2004.
"When I was in school, UW was more of a liberal arts school. It had
almost open admissions. You could get financial aid more easily, and
the economic times were better.
"Now, only the best students can get in at UW, and financial aid is
harder to get -- so students have to work much harder both in the
classroom and to make ends meet. I mean, nowadays, these kids have
their noses to the grindstone, and the only thing that's going to
shake them loose is an economic depression or a military draft."
Ben Daniels, also a member of the Campus Antiwar Network and
International Socialist Organization, wonders whether the enormity of
the world's problems stops students cold.
"Actually, I think a lot of people today aren't active because they
don't necessarily know what to do to make a difference," said
Daniels, who is taking a semester off at UW-Madison between his
junior and senior year. "I think we need to learn what people have
done in the past to make a difference, and teach that to students today."
According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning
and Engagement, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who vote has
increased over the past decade, and some expect those numbers to rise
again in 2008.
In 1996, just 35 percent of U.S. citizens ages 18 to 24 voted in the
presidential election. That number inched up to 36 percent in 2000
and spiked to 47 percent in 2004. Despite these increases, younger
people still vote far less often than those who are older. In 1996,
62 percent of U.S. citizens 25 and older voted, and those numbers
were 63 percent in 2000 and 66 percent in 2004.
Younger people in Wisconsin do tend to vote more than their peers nationally.
In 1996, 47 percent of state citizens 18 to 29 voted in the
presidential election. Those numbers moved to 50 percent in the 2000,
and 65 percent in 2004. Nonetheless, 80 percent of Wisconsin
residents 30 and older voted in 2004.
"It does seem like since 9/11 (in 2001) that the students are a
little more outward-looking," said the UW's Cramer Walsh. "College
students are often pretty preoccupied with things in their personal
lives, but it seems like folks on campus these days are pretty
concerned with everything going on in the world around them."
At the same time, young people often feel disenfranchised from
government and don't feel anyone is listening to them.
"So it could be that protests are one of those things that people
think is just not going to matter," said Cramer Walsh.
Stelter understands why some students might feel that way. In fact,
she admits that no matter who is elected the next president, she
doesn't envision a sea change sweeping across the land.
"It just doesn't seem like the major parties are listening to us,"
said Stelter, a member of Students for (Ralph) Nader. "Especially
when it comes to the war in Iraq.
"The Democrats have been saying how they want to end this war -- and
then they take control of Congress and they've still really done
nothing that they've promised."
The way Daniels sees it, the direction of the country depends less on
who wins the presidential race between McCain and Obama, hinging
instead on how determined the people of this country are to demand
"People need to learn the lesson that change comes from below, from
the people, and not from the top down," he said. "History has always
been made not from the person sitting in the White House, but from
the people sitting in the streets and at the lunch counters and in
the work forces. That's who has the power to make the difference."