In February 1971, 125 Vietnam War veterans gathered in Detroit to talk about what they had seen and done in the war. News reporters and activist filmmakers descended on the Howard Johnson’s where they met.
The reporters — if you have a long TV-news memory, you’ll recognize some — didn’t do much with the tales they heard. But the filmmakers captured it all and made Winter Soldier, a wake-up call about just what “our boys” were doing over there.
This long-unseen documentary — it takes its title from Tom Paine’s 1776 patriotic pamphlet, “Common Sense” — earned renewed interest during last year’s presidential election. John Kerry was one of those Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Jane Fonda was also involved.
That’s all some needed to know.
But the film, opening today at Orlando’s Downtown Media Arts Center, is a stark document of that time, that organization and that war. Kerry is barely in it, a young Navy officer questioning the motives of his fellow veterans against the war, bearing witness about what he saw and was told.
And the stories these men tell will chill you if you’re capable of being chilled. “Villes” wiped out, “291 of them, women, children, everybody,” to “send a message.” Marines gunning down children who give them the finger. Officers “gutting” injured female civilians. Beheadings.
“We took ears from living people, sure,” one haunted soldier mutters.
Winter Soldier is an artlessly arty film, all simple, grainy black-and-white close-ups or press-conference testimonials and the odd color photograph of a scene of carnage. But that very lack of artifice adds to its power and authority. Nothing cute or fancy, just the unvarnished “what I saw,” no spin to it.
A lot of people spent a lot of money last election cycle telling American voters that these things never happened. But this film has photos. And it has witnesses. As one soldier says in the film, “They can’t deny the testimony of all the dudes in this room.”
The astonishing tales of savagery in this film, told by men who witnessed them or even took part in them, would silence any Vietnam revisionist, no matter how many Swift Boat Veterans ads he or she has seen. This was a war where helicopter pilots were told “not to count prisoners as they’re being loaded, but when they were unloaded” because who knew what “accidents” might happen on the flight back to base.
“It wasn’t like they were humans,” one soldier says.
It takes a dehumanizing sort of training to make effective soldiers, creating automatic responses in the troops, removing the humanity from “the enemy.”
But Vietnam exposed what this does to the men who follow through on that training. And the results weren’t going to win any “hearts and minds.” They were just upping the body count and turning draftees into monsters as they did.
Winter Soldier captures what many regard as a turning point in the protests against the war, when many of the men who fought it spoke out about what was being done in our name in the quagmire of Southeast Asia.
Dismiss it if you want. Treat it as just history, if you dare. Plainly, this couldn’t happen again. And we’re not five years into Iraq. Yet.