WINTER SOLDIER (1972).
We've all seen our fair share of Vietnam flicks, but this b&w 16mm documentary is one of the most devastating and depressing indictments of that war ever put on film. No surprise, it was barely screened, since the Vietnam conflict was still raging when it was first released. Of course, the U.S.'s current war-hawk political climate makes this caustic wake-up-call more pertinent than ever. In early 1971, the Winter Soldier Investigation (named after a Thomas Paine quote) was held in a Detroit Howard Johnson motel, where over 200 young ex-GI's bared their souls -- as well as the U.S. military's lack of one -- by admitting to various war atrocities they had witnessed against the Vietnamese people. Made in association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (which sponsored the hearings), this scalding mosaic captures all of their traumatic memories. The men describe how they were conditioned to believe that the Vietnamese people were inhuman, and every additional "gook" corpse was a victory for America. Their brutal stories include torching and massacring an entire village in order "to show that we weren't fucking around"; slicing off the ears of their victims, wearing them with pride and later trading them for beer; the interrogation and torture of North Vietnamese POW's; stoning a little child as a joke; and a Marine chopper pilot recalling how live prisoners were routinely thrown from moving helicopters, while fun-loving soldiers had contests to see who could toss a body further out into space. Those are only a drop in the bucket though, and their powerful testimonies are both exhausting and moving. They also discuss the Brass' pressure for a high body count, and how the numbers were inflated in order to make the gullible American public think we were winning the war. But primarily, they explain how they were ordered to kill anyone that moves, anyone hiding, anyone standing still. Anyone period -- men, women, children, without any repercussions from their superiors (except for a possible medal). An angry black dude in the crowd adds that the real root of these atrocities is racism, while other vets recall how they came to their senses about these unspeakable acts and attended the hearings. Some of these veterans are more articulate than others, and most of them look like complete burn-outs -- while their clean-cut military photos are interspersed, showing the changes they've gone through since coming home. There's nothing flashy about the movie's style. It's blunt, unflinching and appalling. Just as it should be. Made by a team of 18 filmmakers (including HARLAN COUNTY USA's Barbara Kopple), who wisely chose to remain anonymous and avoid Nixon's enemies' list; thank god someone captured this powerful event, since the actual Investigation was boycotted by all mainstream media. Of course, a year later, this documentary was also rejected by every TV network, and only NYC's local PBS station WNET and the Whitney Museum chose to air it. Pathetic.
© 2002 by Steven Puchalski.