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Berkeley student recalls, in chilling detail, life on an Iraq war ER unit

— Cleavon Gilman hoped to "take pictures with guns, possibly see some action, to even possibly kill a person" when he joined the U.S. military and deployed to Iraq. He indeed saw blood, lots of it, during his tour of duty, though not on the terms he had literally dreamed of, he told a large, spellbound audience at UC Berkeley Sept 19.

Gilman, now a Cal undergrad, was stationed at Camp Al Asad — an insular American island within Iraq's Anbar Province with Burger Kings, Subways, and Pizza Huts that he found to be both familiar and disorienting. "Chow hall," he said, dished up lobster and cheesecake; flat-screen TVs dished up entertainment. It was blisteringly hot, and slow. Most days. Except when "action" brought wounded GIs, by helicoper, to his unit, Alpha Surgical Company.

Speaking for the first time publicly on his experiences in Iraq, the UC Berkeley transfer student matter-of-factly described, at a daylong teach-in on the Iraq war, the tasks he performed on his 21st-century M*A*S*H* unit — cutting clothes off wounded soldiers to check for missing or mangled body parts, or zipping up a body bag and placing it "close to the other bodies" in a freezer.

"There's a lot of pictures of burned [Iraqi] children floating around on our bases ... They're trophy pictures" and "they're going to come out."

— Cleavon Gilman,
Iraq war vet

The San Diego-area native spoke, as well, of Iraqi casualties, intentional and unintentional, at the hands of U.S. troops — a "genocide," he said, being documented daily by U.S. troops with digital cameras. "There's a lot of pictures of burned children floating around on our bases." They are "trophy pictures" and "they're going to come out," Gilman predicted. "It's going to be a big thing."

He referred to an incident in which GIs entered an Iraqi home and killed a little girl, and people in town bombed the U.S. camp for three weeks in retaliation. "This is a cause and effect thing happening over there," he said.

Ellsberg on election-year dissembling

Earlier in the day, Daniel Ellsberg — whose leaking of top-secret Pentagon documents helped end the Vietnam conflict — discussed "secrets and lies" in the Iraq and Vietnam wars. He called the 1964 and 1968 presidential campaigns  "effectively charades" — as none of the presidential candidates were candid with the American public about their true position on the war, he said. In 1968, for instance, "Nixon was lying about his intention to threaten [the North Vietnamese with] escalation and carry it out if necessary," he said, "and Humphrey was concealing his intention to get out," out of fear that his party leader, Lyndon Johnson, "would cut him off at the knees."

In 2008, too, the public has misconceptions, Ellsberg said. People think, for instance, that Obama plans a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But when you "look at the fine print," Ellsberg said, the proposal calls for a 16-month timetable for bringing home most combat troops — only about half of U.S. uniformed personnel in Iraq. Nor does Obama's plan call for withdrawal of the small army of U.S. military contractors, or the U.S. bases on Iraqi soil (numbering between 4 and 75, depending on who's counting). These bases are now officially described as "enduring," not the less palatable "permanent," noted Ellsberg.

"Flying high above Vietnam dropping bombs for several years, and then spending seven years in a prison cell being tortured" did not afford John McCain "a good vantage point from which to understand" the limitations of U.S. power in a guerrilla war.
— Daniel Ellsberg

Because Iraqis will not accept that "enduring presence," Ellsberg said he foresaw "Americans killing and dying in Iraq in all of your lifetimes and your children's lifetimes."

Although "it's hard to exaggerate how inadequate the Democratic policies are in almost every sphere, and how deceptive," he said, "it's possible to exaggerate in one way: by saying the Republican policies on the whole are no worse." Voting Republican "or not caring who wins" is not an option, Ellsberg asserted.

The long-time activist and scholar discussed the hard-line war strategies favored, but not openly proposed, by Goldwater in the 1964 election, and Nixon in 1968 (Goldwater, for instance, favored tactical use of nuclear weapons). In 2008, he noted, the U.S. public may elect "a man who was in Vietnam War and who believes that it could and should have been won by air power." McCain displayed courage and fortitude under torture, he said. But "flying high above Vietnam dropping bombs for several years, and then spending seven years in a prison cell being tortured," did not afford McCain "a good vantage point from which to understand the Vietnam War" or the limitations of U.S. power in a guerrilla war.

The Berkeley teach-in, organized by students, was part of a national week-long series of events whose organizing theme was the historical legacy of 1968, when resistance to a U.S. war spawned watershed events around the world.