Imperial Witnesses

Washington City Paper | December 9, 2005
In April 2004, John Kerry appeared on Meet the Press, and Tim Russert chided him for having testified 33 years earlier that U.S. troops committed atrocities in Vietnam. “A lot of those stories have been discredited,” Russert asserted without evidence, presumably restoring honor to the American endeavor in a single clause.

Perhaps Russert could take a 95-minute break from spit-shining the status quo to see Winter Soldier, a seldom-shown 1972 documentary about the conference that inspired Kerry’s testimony. A cinéma vérité treatment so early-’70s in spirit that it doesn’t even credit an individual director, this artless film merely records some of what more than 125 anguished Vietnam veterans divulged during a 1971 conference in Detroit. Aside from showing a few photographs, the men don’t provide any evidence for their stories, either. But their tears, shudders, and broken voices corroborate their accounts, and the unblinking acceptance of their peers indicates that what these soldiers saw and did was commonplace.

After the Tom Paine epigraph that provides the name of the conference—the gist is that “winter soldiers” are more stalwart than “summer patriots”—the movie opens with the registration of a participant. When he reveals that he’s a former helicopter pilot, the man is asked if he ever knew of Vietnamese prisoners being thrown from choppers. Of course, he says. That’s why there were orders never to count prisoners when they were loaded onto a copter, but only when they disembarked.

The vets describe other gruesome incidents that might seem to be the handiwork of reprobates and sociopaths, but even those fit a pattern. Shortly after one guy recalls seeing a USAID employee (yes, a civilian) gut and skin a Vietnamese woman, another says that his last bit of instruction at Camp Pendleton was watching his drill instructor cuddle a rabbit—only to suddenly break its neck and disembowel it. Sexual torture of women and girls, shooting little boys as if they were rats, cutting off ears and trading them in for beers—all this was part of what one veteran calls a “body-count war.” Success in Vietnam was measured not in land captured but in enemies killed. And how were civilians distinguished from Viet Cong? They were still alive. “Anyone you killed was VC,” explains one man, a statement of unofficial U.S. military policy that is echoed by others. There were orders—that’s the essential message of Winter Soldier.

Is everyone here telling the truth? It’s impossible to say. Some may be lying, exaggerating, or claiming someone else’s nightmares as their own. But the notion that a lot of these stories have been discredited is simply untrue. The same month that Russert verbally fragged Kerry, the Toledo Blade published an exposé of a U.S. Army Tiger Force unit allegedly responsible for hundreds of incidents of mutilation, torture, rape, and murder, and such historians as Nicholas Turse and Richard Moser have documented many more. The latter has said that “there is no doubt there was a pattern of abuse of civilians and war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam.”

To those who don’t remember the Vietnam War, Winter Soldier may seem antique; certainly many of the film’s hairstyles and much of its slang are. Yet anyone who’s been paying attention to the occupation of Iraq will recognize certain mind-sets, tactics, and weapons. There is, for example, a discussion of the horrible burns inflicted by “Willy Peter,” the Nam-era term for white phosphorus, a chemical weapon that U.S. troops have used in Iraq. Still, the re-released film would have benefited from the addition of an epilogue that makes a few connections between 1971 and 2005 explicit. Perhaps this could suffice: Although an Army inquiry concluded that 18 members of that Tiger Force unit committed crimes, none were ever charged or court-martialed. At the time the investigation evaporated, the White House chief of staff was Dick Cheney, and the U.S. secretary of defense was Donald Rumsfeld.

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