Winter Soldier, various soldier witnesses, Winterfest Productions, 1972
I am rather fond of invoking, especially in writing of the American Revolution that we have just again celebrated, Tom Paine’s little propaganda piece in defense of that revolution which hails the winter soldiers of 1776 for staying at their posts when others either ran away or became faint-hearted at the prospects of defeating the bloody English. It is those efforts by those long ago winter soldiers that other leftists and I have honored in the past and continue to honor today. We will leave the hollow holiday rhetoric and mindless flag waving to the sunshine patriots. Needless to say, given the title of the film under review, I am not the only one who appreciates that description and the producers here, I believe, have caught the essence of the spirit of those long ago winter soldiers in this documentary about the rank and file soldier-driven investigation in 1971 into the atrocities and horrors produced by the American military in the Vietnam War.
It is an old hoary truism, if not now something of a cliché, that war does not bring out humankind’s nobler instincts. For a very recent example one need look no further back than at the newspaper headlines of the past few years concerning various atrocities and acts of torture committed by the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly the first time that the American military has been exposed acting in less than its self-proclaimed ‘agent of liberation’ role in its various imperial adventures. If one rolls the film of history back to the last generation, for those who have forgotten or were not around, Vietnam presents that same story. As against prior wars two things made awareness that something had gone horribly wrong possible in Vietnam. First, Vietnam was the first televised war and at some point it became impossible for the military to hide everything that it was doing. Secondly, a small critical mass of American military personnel, mainly those rank and file personnel who actually carried out military policy, wanted to clear the air of their complicity in that policy.
Needless to say, an investigation into atrocities and torture is not something that the American military establishment wished to have aired in public (and as the fate of this film indicates raised hell to successfully keep it out of the major media markets of the time). That establishment was much more comfortable with internal governmental investigations or whitewashes of their actions as occurred, ultimately, in the case of My Lai. However the traumatic reaction of a significant element of the rank and file soldiery in Vietnam caused this 'unofficial' investigation to take place. For those who grew up, like this reviewer, believing something of Lincoln’s expression that the American democratic experience was the ‘last, best hope for mankind’ this was not pretty viewing. For one, also like the reviewer, who was a soldier during the Vietnam War period and who had friends and ‘buddies’ just like those that populate this documentary AND DID SOME OF THE SAME THINGS it was doubly hard. But, dear reader, for the most part what the citizen-soldiers- our brothers, sons and other relatives- have to say here needed to be said.
Naturally in a documentary that films an investigation into atrocities, torture and military standard operating procedure (SOP) during the Vietnam War the interviewees are going to be a little more articulate, a little more remorseful and a lot more angry than the average soldier who went through Vietnam came home and tried to forget the experience. These soldiers had an agenda- and that agenda was to get their buddies- the troops still in Vietnam- home. Nevertheless one must be impressed by the way they expressed themselves –sometimes haltingly, sometimes inarticulately, sometimes from some depth that we have no understanding of. Moreover, their testimony has the ring of truth. Not the SOP military truth but this truth- humankind has a long way to go before it can, without embarrassment, use the word civilized to describe itself. No, my friends, these were not our soldiers but, they were our people-these were the winter soldiers of the Vietnam War.