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.
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.
Black and White / 96 minutes / iPod-ready MP4 file / Includes bonus short film, "The Ifukube Remix"