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Winter Soldiers

August 21, 2005

I recently saw a film I’ve avoided for more than 30 years. It’s a documentary about grizzled young U.S. veterans describing military operations in Vietnam that swept through farming villages like Mongol hordes on a rampage. The film, Winter Soldier, is being re-released in movie theatres across the country and on a DVD, as a timely warning to work to end the horror of our war in Iraq.

These are war stories you couldn’t tell your mother, one veteran said amid serial accounts of rape, torture, wanton shooting of civilians and deliberate destruction of vast areas of Vietnam. The 95-minute documentary shows portions of testimony by more than 100 veterans at the Winter Soldier Investigation, sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in Detroit, Michigan in 1971. The full transcript was read into the Congressional Record and triggered repercussions that were still reverberating in political attacks on John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election campaign.

Along with Kerry and others, I was an organizer of that gruesome forum. It is still hard to fathom how the low-key counter-insurgency operations of the early 1960s morphed into “destroy the village to save it” mindless savagery. When I served in the Army in Vietnam in 1962-63, the official mission was to protect the Vietnamese people from a communist threat. Our actual mission was to spark a wider war. By 1965, as this film graphically details, the American military mission had shifted to attacking the people we had originally been sent to save.

To the credit of the veterans who spoke out about their experiences as Marine and Army grunts, helicopter pilots, medics, and prisoner of war interrogators, they wrestled with why this happened. They talked about how they had gone from eager viewers of Hollywood war heroics to brutalizing Vietnamese women, children and old men. What they did to Vietnamese young men, described in horrific detail, was more horrendous than the shocking stories and photos of torture of suspects to filter out of Iraq.

They talked about how growing up in America prepared them to treat Vietnamese as less than human. They noted that in military training they were told to kill gooks…that all Vietnamese were gooks…and the only good gook is a dead gook. These are eerie echoes of the U.S. Army’s campaigns against Native American Indians.

I saw the film at a showing at Lincoln Center that included a discussion with filmmakers and three of the featured veterans, Rusty Sachs, Scott Camil and Ken Campbell. The vets talked about how this event was a turning point in their lives. The power of the film comes from follow-up interviews to selections of testimony, in which we see anguished ex-soldiers struggle to regain a sense of humanity after engaging in murderous mayhem.

I’m still sorting out how I feel about having been in an exotic adventure that grew into a monstrous nightmare of our own making. Nothing I did at the time—resigning from West Point, writing about the war, organizing antiwar veterans, working in various ways to end the war—ever seemed sufficient.

More than a dozen filmmakers donated their time and skills to record rare moments of reflection by young men who visibly carried the weight of massive destruction on their shoulders. When released in 1972, Winter Soldier was widely shown in Europe and virtually banned in the U.S. A small art film distributor in New Jersey, Milliarium Zero, engineered the re-release. For more information: www.wintersoldierfilm.com.

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