Winter Soldier (1972)

Media wants to capitalize on all these veterans getting together and testifying on all these atrocities. You know, we want to get into the atrocities, but we also want to get into what are we doing over there to begin with. You know, how did these atrocities get to be committed? They just don’t happen. The whole thing of how they tell you that the people over there aren’t really people.

— Vietnam war veteran, Winter Soldier

The real thing is that the thing is racism.

— Vietnam war veteran, Winter Soldier

Recent news concerning U.S. military efforts in Iraq and elsewhere has not been good. Even as the Bush administration regularly dismisses charges of detainee abuses and declares its determination to “get to the bottom of” alleged atrocities and accidents, more accusations are being made and more investigations mounted. Amid the turmoil, broad questions emerge, usually to do with how such behavior can happen. Is it a function of stress or conditioning, individual or systemic problems?

For one high profile example, Benedict Carey wonders in the New York Times about Private Steven D. Green, now charged as the “ringleader” of a group of five soldiers who raped a woman and killed her and her family in Mahmudiyah. Green is most often described in reports as discharged from the Army because of a “personality disorder,” and Carey says, “In this environment, people who have one diagnosis in particular — antisocial personality disorder — can often masquerade as bold, effective soldiers, psychiatrists argue” (“When the Personality Disorder Wears Camouflage”, 9 July 2006).

“In this environment.” That would be war, where extreme stress, chaos, and training collide. The cruelty and specificity of these alleged crimes — the men purportedly planned the event, disguised themselves, then covered up evidence — seem to indicate individual pathologies, apart from the war, their training or lack of same. But what if the “environment” had something to do with their choices?

In this context, Winter Soldier could not be more relevant. Filmed in Detroit during January and February 1971, the Winter Soldier Investigation included testimony by some 125 Vietnam war veterans, hoping to expose the war’s effects, and help bring it to an end. Fifteen filmmakers came together to shoot the many hours of testimony, as well as surrounding conversations and impromptu press conferences, in order to preserve the event and, again ideally, to make it available to viewers around the U.S. and elsewhere, part of what was by 1971, a sustained and multi-faceted anti-war effort.

Though the film’s release back then was extremely limited (it was more widely seen in Europe than in the States), it was re-released theatrically last year, and — despite and after legal threats — is now available on DVD from Milestone. In part this “rediscovery” of the film was helped along by the fact that it features a few minutes of a very young, long-haired John Kerry, who not only participated in the Detroit testimonies, but also went on to speak before Congress in 1971. But more urgently, those involved in the film’s reemergence hope, again ideally, that it will bring attention once again to the dire circumstances of war generally, and more specifically, to the effects of the current “environment” on today’s troops. This is not to discount differences between the “conflicts”; it is to argue that lessons must be learned.

The Investigation and film took their title from Thomas Paine’s “The Crisis” (23 December 1776):

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

While the “winter soldiers” may not have achieved a conventional “triumph,” they did not shrink from service. Instead, they stepped forward, spoke truth to power, sought to expose policies and expectations that had gone terribly wrong. As they testify, their nervousness is often visible in the film’s grainy, faded black-and-white frames, sometimes audible in their cracking voices. Watching them now, 35 years later, you make no mistake however: what they did was remarkable, courageous, and meaningful. “What should be brought out,” says one young man, “is the horror of the everyday.”

Their stories are indeed terrible. Seated in a series of panels (identified by unit or topic), they speak in simple, earnest language and convey complex concepts. They wonder at themselves, how they could have responded to their “environment” in ways that appall them now. One by one, they describe criminal acts, committed or witnessed, revealing regret, still wondering at how they came to this place (transcripts are online at the Sixties Project). They describe prisoner abuse, villages burned, children murdered, U.S. officers fragged, women raped, and suspects dismembered. “I didn’t like being an animal,” says one man, “And I didn’t like seeing everyone else turning into animals either.” The sheer number and repetition of the details help to establish a context: the troops were encouraged to see their enemies as less than human (“All Vietnamese were gooks, slant-eyes, zips… inferior to us. We were Americans, the civilized people”), to be callous (“One big bad ass corporal took out his knife and stuck it in [a prisoner’s] neck and jiggled it until he died”), to increase body counts and extract intel by whatever means they could.

Such open-ended “instructions” suggest a lack of strategy and objective, while stories of alarming interrogation techniques suggest frustration and anger. While some of the men remain anonymous — as the Investigation’s impetus was not so much to identify individuals, but to expose the culture that produced them — others appear in the film more than once, identified by name cards or self-declaration. Their faces and stories have appeared in other documentaries (say, Sir No Sir and Going Upriver) that keep this difficult history alive, despite efforts to repress it.

Medevac pilot Captain Rusty Sachs describes seeing prisoners bound with copper wire and thrown from planes (“There were these guys from Philadelphia… [who] used to have contests to see how far they could throw the bound bodies out of the airplane”), Sgt. Joseph Bangert describes seeing a Vietnamese woman “cut from her vagina all the way just about to her breasts… [then] left… there as a sign of something or other”), and Carl Rippberger shows pictures: “The next slide is a slide of myself, I’m extremely shameful of it. Don’t ever let your government do this to you. It’s me holding a dead body, smiling.”

Similarly infused with pain and resentment, other testimonies include even more personal detail. Scott Camil — whose ongoing anti-war activism is traced in “Seasoned Veteran: The Journey of a Winter Soldier,” a 40-minute documentary included on the DVD — recalls his own road to Vietnam. In trouble for “assault and battery” in high school, he was encouraged to find “order” in the service. After Parris Island (where he endured “things that didn’t normally happen to you, that were bad for your head”), Camil says, “They said, ‘Now you’ve earned the name “Marines,” now you’re men.'” Fully acculturated, Camil and others went to war ready to prove themselves and unprepared for the “environment.”

Pulling up memories for Investigation was one way for individuals to come to terms what happened. It was also a means of making public what had long remained hidden. In “A Conversation with the Filmmakers,” also included on the DVD (featuring members of the Winterfilm collective, including David Grubin, Barbara Jarvis, and Michael Lesser), Barbara Kopple says, “They told these stories because they didn’t want this to happen to everybody else.” Watching them speak, she says, she had a “sense of hope, a sense that people can change” if only they find means to “communicate.”

While Winter Soldier provides one such means, others must be cultivated and continuing. Bear in mind that efforts to speak out continue, with regard to the current wars. On 5 July, charges were brought against 28-year-old Lt. Ehren Watada, who has refused to deploy to Iraq with his unit, based on his belief that the war is illegal. Asserting that he owes obedience to the Constitution before the administration, Lt. Watada faces up to eight years in jail and a dishonorable discharge. Even as so much news about the war in Iraq is not good, this story offers another way to communicate, to expand the public conversation about the war’s many disorders.

Winter Soldier – Theatrical Trailer

RATING 9 / 10