Here's how it was:
Close to 150 Vietnam veterans met at a Detroit hotel in January-February 1971, under the sponsorship of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, to tell the press, and anyone else who would listen, about atrocities they witnessed and committed while serving in the military. Their testimony, along with interviews and other interactions during the event, was recorded by a group of eighteen filmmakers who chose (in the charged atmosphere of those times) to be anonymous, calling themselves the Winterfilm Collective.
Winter Soldier was shot in stark 16mm black and white, with occasional color film and still photos from the war to help illustrate the men's stories. No attempt is made to create drama through the editing. There is no voice-over to provide background. We simply witness the testimonies of the men--we hear their stories as if we were in the hotel, encountering them for the first time. And thirty-four years later, the shock of what these stories contain is enough to make it seem like we've never heard of such things before.
The men tell of the killing of civilians--men, women and children. They tell of rape and disembowelment. Torturing prisoners. Cutting off ears as trophies. Throwing people out of helicopters, with contests to see who can throw a prisoner the farthest. Stoning a child to death for fun. Massacring entire villages and putting them to the torch.
And they tell how all these things were not aberrations, or deviations from the normal code of conduct, but standard operating procedures--fostered, encouraged, and expected.
Soldier after soldier (all honorably discharged, many decorated) explains that the Vietnamese were not considered human. They were "gooks," and there was no clear difference between Viet Cong and civilians. If the gook was dead, it was Viet Cong. One man says that his unit never went through a village without destroying it, unless they just didn't have time. Another tells of how he called in a gunship to fire on certain coordinates, but it turned out to be a false alarm. Just for the hell of it, the chopper blew up a hut, killing two babies. They were bored and tired of flying around without killing something. Such incidents were common, he says.
This is all so hard to listen to, hard to imagine. But we must hear.
Success in this war, it is emphasized more than once, was not measured in the capture of land, but in the number of bodies. Anything that would boost the body count was encouraged. The actual number of enemy dead was grossly inflated in order to make it appear that we were winning.
At some point after coming home, each of these men came to a painful awareness of wrong that they could not shake. They had to speak out--not to confess as if their wrongs were the result of personal faults (although they certainly struggle with shame) but to make clear that they were trained to commit these crimes, that the atrocities were a conscious and deliberate strategy by the military. We don't know how they came to this point. We see the contrast between their long hair and beards and the photos of them in 'Nam with crewcuts--in one case laughing while standing over a dead prisoner. But the film doesn't tell us how the change happened. We only glimpse here and there. We can only guess, and try to imagine.
We do get to know one soldier in more depth. Sergeant Scott Camil agreed to be interviewed at length, and he talks about his former belief in the rightness of the cause (he signed up for an extra tour), and the techniques used to brutalize Marines in boot camp, to break the human feelings out of them. Camil is very frank and thoughtful. He says he smiles because he doesn't want to cry. He went to school after the war, and education helped open his eyes.
The courage of these men is impossible to calculate. The My Lai massacre was made to appear as if it was a rogue operation, and Lieutenant William Calley became the scapegoat. These soldiers dared to tell us that there were thousands of massacres just like My Lai. The government lied to the American people about the nature of the war, and sought to discredit those who spoke out against it. Still, the winter soldiers spoke out, and their voices still need to be heard.
Only one theater in the country (in New York City) agreed to screen Winter Soldier when it was released in 1972. All three TV networks refused to air it. It was shown once on PBS, but only on the NY affiliate.
We didn't want to hear the truth. It was too painful. Hollywood gave us The Deer Hunter, which used a phony Russian roulette metaphor while ignoring the issue of atrocities. Well-intentioned films like Apocalypse Now and Platoon still dressed up the war in pretentious personal ideas. Rambo was the ultimate lie, in which we crawled back into our sick denial, and got to "win" the war through the heroics of a grotesquely macho superman. Finally, we brought Forrest Gump in to rewrite the 60s--the Vietnam vet as idiot saint.
Here's how it is:
War has been sanitized and turned into a video game. If we question the war, we're told to "support our troops." Revelations of torture are explained away as the actions of a few "bad apples," despite all the evidence that it is deliberate and conscious government policy. Killing is dressed up in colorful costumes of "freedom" and "democracy." Soldiers (and their mothers) who speak out are attacked and discredited.
And Winter Soldier has been released to theaters again. Presumably, it will appear soon on DVD.
Wake up, and see it.
©2005 Chris Dashiell