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Review :: Politics
Winter Soldier: a film for our time
16 Nov 2005
Modified: 17 Nov 2005
After an absence of decades, this Vietnam-era documentary film is back in circulation, and its lessons should serve to shake every one of us out of any illusions about what war means. Graphic testimony from veterans, plus thought-provoking commentary about what makes such inhuman crimes possible.
I followed with outraged attention the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal, and watched angrily as the American military ravaged entire cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi. And then came intermittent reports of full-scale torture of even more horrific dimensions in the dungeons of the client security agencies to which the US government ships some of its detainees. That’s why I decided to attend a showing at the Museum of Fine Arts of a Vietnam-era documentary called Winter Soldier.

Stark and simple, the film basically recounts the testimony of many war veterans who had seen and participated in acts of almost unimaginable cruelty, and had come together in Detroit in early 1971 just after revelations about the My Lai massacre, to tell the world what they knew. The weekend’s historic events were shut out of mainstream media outlets, and aside from a few showings on campuses and in one theater in NYC, were purposely kept from distribution inside the United States. Though all this only energized the fledgling Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization to speak out and organize with the radical social movements of the time, the film was an essential missing link in understanding the war, until its recent return to the US in limited screenings over several months.

It soon became clear why such an incendiary work would be repressed. Unlike other Vietnam films, which despite their gory depictions of war’s reality ultimately serve to increase its appeal in some dark way, this film featured close-ups of otherwise innocent-looking young vets baring their souls about the rampant abuse, torture and murder of Vietnamese people. The first half focused on direct testimony of soldiers from various units, ranks and periods in Vietnam. There were ‘grunts,’ sergeants, lieutenants, even a captain, of various ethnic backgrounds describing with chilling calmness their participation in gruesome practices of the war, which after the fourth and fifth account began to seem like routine events, or Standard Operating Procedure as some called it.

There were tales of commonplace shooting of children and civilians, of how torching villages as troops moved through an area was only not done for lack of time, how prisoners were so frequently tossed out of aircraft that officers mandated rules to count them only upon disembarking, not upon entering. There were individual acts of barbarity too, one man telling of a comrade slitting open a woman from vagina to neck who had been shot multiple times, then pulling her entrails out onto the ground. The severing of ears as trophies to wear was a contest by which soldiers and units competed with each other for beers upon returning to base. Gang rapes and other monstrous abuses of women were especially common, and not only were they ignored by superiors, they were seen as effective ways of controlling the civilian population.

I detail these stories so graphically because they seem important to remember, since they had such a profound meaning for the men telling them. But the horror of wartime atrocities, told by these young men with astonishing composure and detachment, is only part of the film’s importance. Much of the second half focused on reflections about how this madness came to be, and about how it was perpetrated by the military culture. One man told about his basic training in the Marines, where the final lesson before being sent to Vietnam was in being shown a rabbit at the beginning of one afternoon, the men being allowed to grow attached to it over the course of a couple of hours; then watching as the instructor took out a knife and sliced open its belly, skinned it and pulled out its guts, in a macabre desensitization exercise for the coming culture of Vietnam. There was examination of this culture, where soldiers became inured to brutality by seeing it all around them, and by seeing it ignored by officers. Training in Geneva Conventions law consisted only of what they were obliged to report to their captors- name, rank, serial number- and consequently interrogations became a free-for-all, with little supervisory control, and sadism the standard operating procedure.

One of the most relevant aspects of the film for me was its examination of race and racism in the war context. Much like the current demonization of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists or at best terrorist suspects, worthy only of deportation and probably extermination, there was widespread acceptance in Vietnam of ‘gooks’ as less-than-human, ‘only’ pinkos and commie sympathizers, not worthy of any humanity or even a second thought. More than one testimony pointed out this form of racism, and how it was this above all that helped them to commit extreme acts of violence without the normal overriding voice of conscience kicking in. This said a lot to me about the dangers of what we are seeing on Fox TV, hearing on right-wing talk radio and reading even in mainstream papers. An interaction outside the testimony room between a black man and one of the white soldiers who had just testified was caught on film, and raised important issues about the deeply-ingrained racism in US culture itself and how it contributes to this culture in war.

The courage it took for these men to come out and admit their heinous acts, and to indict the institution which had been their lives until recently, was apparent, the psychological strain causing more than one to break down. At one point a reporter asked one of the men whether he thought his long hair and unruly beard would alienate mainstream America, and the answer was deep: he said he had spent the last several years with hair no longer than a quarter-inch, and now it felt good to let his hair grow. It was a symbol to him of his opposition to what he had become in the war.
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This work is in the public domain


Re: Winter Soldier: a film for our time
18 Nov 2005
HMMMM, you guys praise these lost souls for having the strength to come forward and talk about the inhuman things that they did? WHAT? Have you guys gone to the other side on me? These clowns should be behind bars! Shooting civilians? Shooting kids? Cutting off ears? They admit it, they should pay for it!
Frankly, I am surprised by you guys!
Re: Winter Soldier: a film for our time
18 Nov 2005
If I agree that soldiers who commit war crimes should be punished, will you agree that the militaries which tolerate, encourage, and defend them should be dismantled?

Did you even read the article? You seem to have missed the point- the entire SYSTEM is the problem.
Re: Winter Soldier: a film for our time
18 Nov 2005
I cannot vouch for the actions or the soldiers of the 1960's and 70's. Those were times of great turmoil, not just because of the war, and great growth. Soldiers of today are part of an all volunteer force and are better trained. led and educated than any other soldier on this planet. As always, I will not attempt to hide the fact that there always will be some individuals who have loose wiring and should have never been allowed to be pushed through the system. You complain about the AB mess. That truly was a mess and those "soldiers" got off far to easy!