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A re-released documentary exposes Washington's war crimes in Vietnam
Winter Soldier

Review by Jonah Birch | August 26, 2005 | Page 9

Winter Soldier, a documentary by the Winterfilm Collective. Showing in cities across the U.S. through the end of the year, see for upcoming screenings.

THE RE-RELEASE of Winter Soldier, a film that documents the Winter Soldier Investigation organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) in 1971, could not have been more timely. The un-narrated film captures the testimony of dozens of Vietnam veterans, who detailed their experiences in the military and the horrors of the "American War," as the Vietnamese called it.

Over three days of public hearings organized by the VVAW at a Detroit hotel, veteran after veteran describes committing or witnessing brutal war crimes--often on the orders, and always with the knowledge, of their military commanders. Though the media ignored it, the Winter Soldier Investigation showed that rape, torture, senseless murders and collective punishment were hallmarks of the American war in Southeast Asia.

In the film, soldiers describe the "horrors of the commonplace" in Vietnam, where U.S. troops--under the orders of officers determined to rack up large body counts to appease their own commanders--were encouraged to kill as many Vietnamese as possible, with incentives such as extra leave, medals and official favor for those who murdered with the greatest efficiency.

One veteran talks about becoming so desensitized to violence in Vietnam that he and the soldiers in his unit began to collect the ears of the victims of American "liberation" as a game. "Whoever had the most ears, they would get the most beers," he says.

One veteran at the Winter Soldier Investigation was John Kerry, who later described the revelations of the hearings in testimony before Congress, famously asking: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Seeing Winter Soldier now makes Kerry's attempt as a presidential candidate last year to cover up his participation in the antiwar movement seem even more outrageous.

While the Winter Soldier hearings were held nearly 35 years ago, much of the testimony could easily refer to the U.S. government's occupation of Iraq.

For example, when former military interrogator Nathan Hale describes his superiors' instructions to "elicit information" from prisoners of war "in any means possible," who could help but think of the revelations of U.S. torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib? "I could beat these people, I could cut 'em, I could probably shoot 'em," Hale says. "The important point here is that everything I did was monitored."

The power of Winter Soldier comes not only from the firsthand accounts of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, but also in the veterans' description of their own journey to antiwar activism--of "regaining their humanity," as a number of veterans put it. Soldiers and veterans played a key role in ending the Vietnam War, through their antiwar activity in both the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

It wasn't just draftees who engaged in antiwar activity--so did many young Americans who enlisted in the military early in the war, out of necessity or patriotism or (most often) some combination of the two.

For example, my uncle, a Marine radioman named Jonathan Birch, who is featured in the film, signed up in 1965 because he had limited economic prospects after high school and was pushed toward the military by his father. Another veteran, Scott Camil, describes being pushed into Marines after getting arrested while he was on probation.

One thing that's clear from Winter Soldier is the key role played by the antiwar movement in providing these soldiers with the resources to become active opponents of the war. For example, Camil talks about the importance of meeting antiwar draftees late during his tour in Vietnam--and antiwar activists upon his return to the U.S.--in providing him with an alternative framework to understand his experiences there.

Antiwar activity provided not only a political but also an emotional outlet for Vietnam vets, who were often plagued by anger, disillusionment and guilt--not to mention, all too frequently, drug addiction. Many veterans in Winter Soldier describe the importance of speaking out in allowing them to get over the "dehumanization" of military training and combat in Vietnam.

Winter Soldier is an amazingly relevant film, not only because it details what American wars of "liberation" actually mean for the people being "liberated," also because it gives us insight into the experiences of soldiers fighting in Iraq today. Hopefully, our generation will have its own "Winter Soldier Investigation" someday soon--featuring antiwar veterans of the U.S. government's most recent war crimes in Iraq.

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