MOVIE REVIEW: Winter Soldier - The Film
In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, a public inquiry into war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam was held at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit. Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation with support from Jane Fonda and Mark Lane. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. "The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners," goes one piece of testimony, "utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of fileting them like a fish. . . . Prisoners treated this way were executed at the end because there was no way that we could take them into any medical aide and say, 'This dude fell down some steps.'"
Though the event was attended by press and television news crews almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes the film Winter Soldier an unforgettable experience.
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Winter Soldier (4 out of 5 stars) Film is stark document of Vietnam War and the times>
Sentinel Movie Critic
September 29, 2005
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.
Roger Moore can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5369.
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"Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension
of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all his
laws." -John Adams
War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is
satisfied that he too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone
has lost. : Karl Kraus (1874-1936)
A time will come when a politician who has willfully made war and promoted international dissension will be as sure of the dock and much surer of the noose than a private homicide. It is not reasonable that those who gamble with men's lives should not stake their own.
Shape of Things to Come