In 1971 at age 19, I had a life-changing experience when I met dozens of Vietnam veterans who'd descended on my hometown of Detroit to testify at the "Winter Soldier" hearings organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In anguished presentations, the Vets painstakingly described the horrors against Vietnamese they'd seen or taken part in. And the attitudes of racism and bloodlust that motored the war. Many vets blamed the lies in mainstream media for convincing them to go to Vietnam in the first place.
Virtually every soul in that Detroit hotel banquet hall wept openly at the heartfelt, bone-chilling revelations pouring out of the Vietnam vets struggling with bloody memories and post-traumatic stress. But no one outside that hall could see or hear the proceedings. No TV or radio networks covered the event.
This weekend at the National Labor College near Washington D.C., a new generation of vets convened by Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) presented powerful hearings -- "Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan" -- that were more extensive and perhaps even more emotional.
Thirty seven years later, I again found myself sobbing at testimony from solemn young Americans returned from needless war, grappling with shattered lives over brutalities against civilians and prisoners they'd witnessed or participated in.
But I was nowhere near D.C.
This time, I watched the dramatic testimony -- often buttressed by photographic and video evidence -- live online at www.IVAW.org. This time, I caught hours of coverage on Free Speech TV, the national satellite network that broadcast the panels of testimony and featured interviews with vets and their families in between panels. This time, I received regular video news feeds in my email inbox from The Real News Network. (The hearings were also televised on 20 public access channels from Fayetteville to Palo Alto, and in public gatherings from Florida to Alaska.)
On my car radio, I listened to the proceedings live on the Pacifica network, which broadcast the hearings to affiliates nationwide -- along with call-ins and email from listeners, including Iraq vets and soldiers not as critical of the war.
The four days of vets' testimony revealed the struggle these young Americans are waging to regain their humanity and morality after having been transformed into callous war-fighters who largely dehumanized Iraqis as a people -- not just "the enemy" or combatants. An objective observer hearing the testimony would have good reason to wonder if U.S. troops -- given the often gratuitous and racist brutality, and the mistreatment of women, children and the elderly -- can ever be a solution in Iraq.
On panel after panel, the veterans offered heartfelt "apologies to the Iraqi people" for what our country has done to their country. I saw a vet rip up the commendation he'd received from Gen. David Petraeus, denouncing the general as a cheerleader who put his own ambitions above his duty to the troops and to the truth. Many vets called for rapid withdrawal from Iraq and criticized Democratic leaders for prolonging and funding the endless occupation.
Ex-Marine Jon Turner, who served two tours in Iraq, ripped his medals from his shirt and threw them on the ground, concluding: "I'm sorry for the hate and destruction I and others have inflicted upon innocent people... Until people hear what is going on, this is going to continue. I am no longer the monster that I once was."
Such powerful first-hand accounts -- if heard by the American public -- would threaten continued funding of the Iraq occupation. But national mainstream outlets in our country, unlike big foreign outlets, largely ignored this weekend's proceedings.
Not surprisingly, these Iraq veterans had little but scorn for U.S. corporate media whose journalistic failures helped sell the war five years ago, and whose sanitized coverage helps sell the troop "surge" today.
But thanks to the Internet and the growing capacity of independent TV, radio and web outlets, a significant minority of Americans had access to these proceedings. And the archived hearings are now available to anyone anytime with computer access.
In Detroit in 1971, I remember what happened when one of the rare mainstream camera crews showed up at Winter Soldier... and then abruptly packed up to leave in the middle of particularly gripping testimony. A roomful of Vietnam vets booed and jeered. It was the moment I became a media critic.
Winter Soldier II shows that it's not enough to criticize corporate media. Even more important is to take advantage of new technologies to keep building independent media.
Jeff Cohen is the founding director of Ithaca College's new center for independent media. He founded the media watch group FAIR in 1986.