Some American films have trouble reaching a wide audience because of unpopular political views. Winter Soldier is an anti-war documentary that records the testimony of members of The Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an organization of dissenting ex-G.I.s that came together in Detroit January of 1971 to tell America about their experiences in Vietnam. A filmmakers' co-op convened to film veteran testimony that refuted the version of the war given us by the Nixon White House.
Savant read and heard enough about the Anti-War movement to form his own opinion on the subject right about the time of Kent State in 1970, but although I heard about Winter Soldier I don't remember it being shown, not even on the highly politicized UCLA campus.
This is a picture that should have been seen by every citizen. The prevailing image of The Vietnam Veterans Against the War is a line of longhaired malcontents throwing their war medals over a fence at the White House, a gesture used in the media to marginalize the entire movement. Nixon couldn't attack the veterans directly but he didn't have to -- middle-class America rejected these 'bums' as phonies or dangerous radicals, yet another fringe minority to be ignored and discounted.
Winter Soldier is direct testimony by the 125 Vietnam Veterans Against the War filmed in harsh B&W, interrupted only intermittently by bits of war footage and snapshots taken in combat. We see a few minutes of initial interviews as the vets check in before giving their statements. One of the interviewers is none other than Presidential candidate John Kerry, who was active in the movement.
What the soldiers say is shocking even now, 35 years later: The My Lai Massacre was not an isolated freak occurrence but just a more egregious example of atrocities committed by U.S. ground forces -- supervised by officers in the field and back at base. All of the speakers describe slaughter and destruction as a routine state of affairs. While the news showed America a steady diet of G.I.s in terms of old-fashioned WW2 platitudes, these veterans outlined the reality on the ground:
Killing was encouraged and atrocities to civilians officially ignored. Vietnamese were in practice not considered human beings. With no sense of trust or common interest between soldiers and peasants, Army patrols simply wiped out village after village, relocating the farmers and often killing for little more reason than to intimidate. The only kind of village that posed no threat was a burned, empty one.
A whole gamut of atrocities is described in detail. Green troops were quickly acclimatized to accepting the random killing. The veterans admit to being idle witnesses and participants in rapes, torture and mutilations. When V.C. prisoners were transported by helicopter head counts were taken only after they reached their destination, so that there wouldn't be discrepancies when some prisoners were tossed from the aircraft in flight. Soldiers speak of a culture of fear and violence. Two describe incidents in which soldiers shoot little kids hanging around the gates of combat installations.
Our enemy body count statistics, the "kill ratio" data used to measure success in the field, were heavily falsified. Staff officers fudged numbers to cover up heavy American losses and soldiers were encouraged to add civilian dead to their kill tallies. Several of the soldiers remember calling in results in this fashion: The soldier says nine V.C. were killed. Headquarters asks how the soldier knows they were V.C.. The Soldier replies, "Because they're dead."
Several soldiers describe their full Vietnam experience, from enlisting to coming home. The experience made them into killers and accomplices in a crime against an entire country, facts they could not reconcile with the images of America they'd known all their lives. The testimony is what it is: There's little in the way of political posturing and only a couple of displays of emotion. The show comes off as honest men trying to share the truth almost completely denied by the country around them -- these "untold" stories happened in combat and at forward installations, so hundreds of thousands of Vietnam vets may have known about them only as rumors.
Standing out from the veterans is Scott Camil, a quietly expressive but transparently honest fellow who holds the camera spellbound for several lengthy monologues. Camil eventually became a leading force in The Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization.
Hollywood seemingly wasn't ready to face the subject of the Vietnam War until later in the 1970s, and even then Winter Soldier was not revived when the big war movies came out -- Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter. In 1975 the anti-war docu Hearts and Minds was given a small release, although its filmmakers remark that its distribution was actively sabotaged. Winter Soldier was all but forgotten. Its appearance now is of course more timely than ever, as we slip into our fourth year of a new war. Whenever something unappetizing happens on our television screens, more bottom-level soldiers go to prison. Semantics and shifting definitions are used to rationalize torture. The illusion has been successfully maintained that war is a civilized and acceptable activity.
The tragedy of Winter Soldier is that the organization was easy prey for the Moral Majority's idea of who should be allowed a public forum. Their testimony got minimal coverage, with much more print and TV devoted to the longhaired "treasonous" protesters throwing back their medals. The administration had demonized protester and draft evaders, but these were real veterans who had become politicized by their war experience. I wonder what the impact might have been if the Vets cleaned themselves up, got short haircuts and wore "acceptable" clothing for their public appearances. Perhaps it wouldn't have helped, as ways would have found ways to discredit them. But I think other older Veterans might not have been so quick to turn their backs.
New Yorker's DVD of Millarium Zero's Winter Soldier is a fine transfer of the sometimes roughly shot B&W docu. Some images are purposely rendered in contrast higher than normal.
The extras are of equal importance and interest to the main feature. A long documentary looks at the activist career of Scott Camil, who comes off as an unassuming natural leader. He organized military methods when the cops tried to roust his group's peaceful demonstrations -- expertise that the general anti-War demonstrators could have used. We're greatly impressed by Camil's unaffected attitude toward his Veterans-rights activities. He doesn't consider himself a celebrity, but he does bristle when recalling the spying and interference against his organization (and him personally) by our FBI.
Besides two other 1971 Vietnam Veterans Against the War films, the disc is rounded out by a group discussion with many of the filmmakers, thirty-five years later. Some of them, like Barbara Kopple, would eventually become famous. This will be the most satisfying extra for film historians looking to know more about how important pictures like Winter Soldier come about.
A trailer is included along with an audio extra of Graham Nash's "Oh! Camil", a song dedicated to the Veteran leader. The disc also has DVD-Rom extras and a stills gallery.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Winter Soldier rates: