“These are the times that try men’s souls,” begins the celebrated passage from Tom Paine’s first Crisis paper, which George Washington would read to his troops in Valley Forge. “The summertime soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
It’s safe to say that these are times that cry for winter soldiers, now that the summertime soldiers in the White House are increasingly on the defensive as their Iraq adventure increasingly draws comparisons to Vietnam.
It remains to be seen whether the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom will include searing recollections of the sort found in Winter Soldier, a 1972 documentary that will be shown this Friday night at Duke University.
Shot in black and white, Winter Soldier is a record of the Winter Soldier Investigation that took place in 1971 in a Detroit hotel conference room. Over the course of a single weekend, approximately 125 Vietnam veterans testified to the war atrocities they had witnessed and committed. The conference was filmed by a collective of leftist filmmakers, most notably Barbara Kopple, who was still several years away from achieving fame for Harlan County, U.S.A. , the first of her two Oscar winners.
While Peter Davis’ similarly scathing–and more artful–Vietnam doc Hearts & Minds won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1974, Winter Soldier was deemed so toxic upon its appearance in 1972 that it almost immediately disappeared to the cinematic underground. The film has reentered circulation this year, playing last April at the Full Frame fest (with Kopple in attendance as a member of the festival jury).
Just as Hearts & Minds recalled our present predicament with its politicians talking optimistically about delivering freedom and democracy at the point of a gun, Winter Soldier is a depressingly familiar echo of another notorious aspect of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terror. One veteran tells us, “My job was to elicit information, which meant I could elicit it in any means possible.”
For this soldier, the permitted instruments of persuasion turn out to include clubs, rifle butts and knives. “[My commanding officer] told me I could use any technique I could think of,” he continues. “The idea is, don’t get caught.”
Winter Soldier is 96 minutes long, and there’s scarcely a single minute that doesn’t fail to mention such things as severed ears, captives dropped from planes and women being raped, tortured and killed. Still, as awful as the stories in Winter Soldier are, one wonders if we’re hearing crimes from a particular war, or simply the reality of warfare. Could it be that a war’s opponents would say the former, while supporters of a given war would choose the latter response? Quakers would no doubt say both answers are correct.
War is hell, indeed. The next time one hears a pro-war bloviater shrug off an atrocity with those three exculpatory words, however, it might be helpful to recall the fuller context of William Tecumseh Sherman’s dictum: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.” (Et tu, Dubya?)
Winter Soldier contains more subtle interest than merely being a necessary exercise in bearing witness. Instead, Winter Soldier, in a way that possibly exceeds the filmmakers’ original mandate, is a troubling look at the roles race, class and gender play in our willingness to extend forgiveness. Many of the veterans shown in Winter Soldier are articulate, thoughtful young men from the middle class. Among their number is John Kerry, then actively involved with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the sponsor of the conference. (No doubt to his subsequent and eternal relief, Kerry makes only a brief, non-incriminating appearance.)
More prominent is Scott Camil, a garrulous, intelligent and photogenic man who tells us that he joined the Marines as a way to escape the legal problems occasioned by his youthful career as a hoodlum. A rebel by nature, Camil’s unruliness was nevertheless broken down, quickly and brutally, in boot camp. By the time he shipped out to Asia, he was a gung-ho killer who would dispatch many Vietnamese–soldier and civilian alike–in two voluntary tours of duty. He seems to have enjoyed it, frankly.
The horrors described in the film are ghastly, but it’s worth remembering that the Winter Soldier Investigation has endured outraged criticism from Vietnam apologists and other veterans who claim that the stories are unrepresentative of the war. There’s no reason to think the stories are made up, but it’s understandable why many veterans would resent the spectacle on display in Winter Soldier. In the main, the film gives most of its time to educated men who seem to be having it both ways, shooting their wad in the jungle and then returning home to soothe their consciences, tarnishing other soldiers in the process. The Swift Boat attacks that damaged Kerry’s presidential bid may have been scurrilous and untrue, but they clearly made some intuitive sense to voters.
There is one scene in Winter Soldier where middle-class white privilege is called out. A black veteran (whose name I didn’t catch) explains to a white guy that he shouldn’t count on getting much black support for the investigation. “You had options,” the man says, unlike the black men joining the Army. Speaking in vintage 1970s jive, this man not-so-subtly suggests that the white soldiers now donning hairshirts could have chosen to behave differently.
In fairness, however, not all of the men in the film seem born to Ivy League privilege, and indeed, the most sympathetic witnesses are the men who can do little more than stammer a few words before choking up and pushing away the microphone.
In one striking sequence, a witness exhibits a photo of himself in Vietnam and says indignantly, “Don’t ever let your government do this to you. That’s me, I’m holding a dead body and I’m smiling.” Compare this apparently inconsequential revelation to the fate of Lynndie England, the poor, uneducated woman from rural West Virginia who became a convenient scapegoat for those on the right eager to brush off Abu Ghraib, and those on the left (including me) who needed a conveniently hideous symbol of Bush’s folly. No one had time for Lynndie’s remorse, so with little support from anyone, she was trundled off to prison for offenses that wouldn’t have been nearly atrocious enough to merit inclusion in the Winter Soldier Investigation. It somehow seems too optimistic to suggest that England’s fate is the result of better military oversight.
Winter Soldier is an important document, but finding a moral in it is a difficult as the problem of war itself. To again quote–but not endorse–a line from the endlessly aphoristic Sherman: “War is cruelty. There’s no use trying to reform it, the crueler it is the sooner it will be over.”
A 35mm print will be shown in Duke’s Richard White Hall on Friday, Nov. 11 at 8 p.m. Imperial’s Isms, an angrily poetic short film about the 1991 chicken plant fire in Hamlet, N.C., will precede the film. Part of Duke’s Cycles of Struggle: Genealogies of the Local Left conference, Nov. 11 and 12 (see www.duke.edu/literature/localleft for details).