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Laramie Movie Scope:
Winter Soldier

Meet the old war, same as the new war

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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April 3, 2006 -- One of the most powerful documentaries ever made about war, “Winter Soldier” was released 34 years ago, but it has rarely been seen in this country. It is about to be released on DVD where it can be discovered by new generations who don't know the ugly truth about the nature of war. This is a documentary which should be required viewing for anyone interested in joining the military, or voting for president. This film hits you like an emotional steamroller. Whatever you thought you knew about Vietnam, or war in general, or basic military training, forget it. If you haven't fought on the front lines in a fierce brutal war like World War II, Korea, Vietnam or the current Iraq war, this film will shatter your illusions about war. If all you know about war is what you see in the movies, this film will come as a shock.

Filmed during the Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit, Mich., on January 31, February 1 and 2, 1971, “Winter Soldier” is a stark retelling of the horrors that soldiers witnessed during the long, bloody Vietnam war. Haunting black and white images of young men, most in their early 20s, telling nightmarish stories of atrocities look sadly from the screen across the long years, forcing us to admit that nothing has really changed. The name Winter Soldier was taken from the writings of Thomas Paine about the soldiers who endured the cold of Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War. Paine made a distinction between these Winter Soldiers and the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” who would shrink from their duty under harsh circumstances.

The format of the Winter Soldier investigation was simply to allow soldiers with combat experience to tell what they did and what they saw while fighting in Vietnam. These statements were made before an audience made up of the public and journalists. These statements were made on the record for all the world to see, but it was largely ignored in this country. The film not only records these statements, but other discussions among veterans. Photographs, some taken by the participants themselves, illustrate some of the points being made by the testimony. In all, more than 100 people gave statements at the Winter Soldier investigation. What is striking about this testimony is that many of those in the film talk about atrocities they committed themselves, not just atrocities they saw other people commit.

One man said he had personally witnessed the massacre of 291 villagers, including women and children, killed when U.S. forces opened fire on a village. Several men said that it was standard operating procedure (SOP) to set fire to Vietnamese houses. One soldier estimated that troops in his unit burned down 50 percent of the villages they passed through, another estimated the percentage of villages destroyed in this way at 90 percent. Several soldiers also testified that it was SOP to list all civilians killed by U.S. forces as enemy combatants, whether they actually were or not. Vietnam was a war of body counts, but several soldiers testified the body counts were a joke. High body counts were sometimes awarded with beer or time off from active duty.

One soldier testified about an execution-style slaying of a female prisoner, whose body was then gutted and skinned. One prisoner was tortured by being disemboweled. Prisoners were thrown out of flying helicopters in order to scare other prisoners into talking. Several men talked about removing the ears from dead prisoners and sometimes cutting their heads off. Ears often were taken as trophies to prove body counts. Some turned this into an “ears for beers” game. Another soldier told of an instance where villagers were shot while they were burying their dead. Little distinction was made between civilians and enemy soldiers. Several soldiers said that they were taught to regard all Vietnamese as “gooks.” As such, the natives were considered inhuman as a matter of course. This made it easier for soldiers to kill them.

One of the people giving testimony at the Winter Soldier investigation was Scott Camil, formerly with the First Marine Division in Vietnam. The camera spends more time on Camil's face than anyone else in the documentary. The articulate Camil is one of the more interesting participants. Strongly pro-war when he came to Detroit to participate in the Winter Soldier investigation, he quickly changed his tune and came to testify about atrocities he had seen and had participated in. In his opening statement, he said, “My testimony involves burning of villages with civilians in them, the cutting off of ears, cutting off of heads, torturing of prisoners, calling in of artillery on villages for games, corpsmen killing wounded prisoners, napalm dropped on villages, women being raped, women and children being massacred ...”

Originally so pro-war he was ready to shoot anti-war protesters, Camil later became an anti-war protester himself. After seeing some of his friends killed in an early skirmish with the Viet Cong, Camil said he quickly decided that he was going to adopt a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later policy in an attempt to stay alive. He took no chances when there was any question if a Vietnamese was friendly or hostile. John Kerry, who ran for the U.S. presidency during 2004, is also seen briefly in the film speaking to one of the Winter Soldier participants.

There is a good package of extras on the DVD, including an image gallery of pro and anti-war protests. There is also a modern day interview with the original Winter Soldier filmmakers. There is also a fascinating feature about Scott Camil called “Seasoned Veteran: Journey of a Winter Soldier,” filmed in 2002. This mini-documentary details how he was shot by a DEA agent and how he later continued his anti-war activities. These activities included a run-in between Vietnam Veterans Against the War and police in Gainesville, Florida during an anti-war protest. Camil said with some pride that the police were having an easy time beating the stuffing out of college students, but got more than they could handle when they ran up against the battle-hardened Vietnam veterans. The DVD also includes the Winter Soldier testimony of the Americal Division and the First Marine Division. Some of this material in these two features was also used in the main feature and is a bit redundant. Also included in the extras is a song by Graham Nash called “Oh Camil (The Winter Soldier)” and downloadable DVD-ROM Acrobat files called “The Winter Soldier Files.”

The DVD is in a full-screen format, converted from the original 16mm film format. The film is mostly black and white interspersed with some color stills. Some of the extras include color motion footage, some of which appears to have been shot with video cameras. The rest is likely color film footage from the 1970s. Sound on the film is two-channel. Some of the stills are in black and white. There are German and French subtitles and English closed-captions on the main film, but not on the extras. There is a blues song on the soundtrack at the beginning and end of the film, as well as in the DVD menu. The DVD will be released on May 30, 2006, but it can be pre-ordered now from Amazon.com. This film rates an A.

Some of the stills on the DVD show pro-war protesters in the streets outside the Winter Soldier investigation. The Winter Soldiers were on the inside, the summer soldiers on the outside, in the cold Detroit winter. The two halves of this national wound have never joined and it has never healed. There are those, including many veterans who still believe that Vietnam was a worthy cause and that the protesters, including the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, sabotaged the U.S. military and caused the country to lose the war. This, in turn, made the country's sacrifice pointless. The other half of the wound are veterans who believe the war was always pointless and that it was destroying Vietnam, along with the cream of America's youth. These two halves fought once again in 2004, when John Kerry, a Winter Soldier, fought George Bush, a summer soldier (who did not fight in Vietnam, but instead went AWOL and never served his full time in the National Guard), for the presidency of the United States.

This time, the summer soldiers won. Now the summer soldiers, who always ignored the hard lessons of Vietnam, have stupidly stumbled into a war in Iraq that is very similar to Vietnam. It is no surprise this latest war has spawned a similar organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War. These veterans, who are sometimes joined by the old Vietnam Veterans in their anti-war marches, tell of Vietnam-like atrocities committed in Iraq. Once again the government is scapegoating a few soldiers just as Lieutenant William Calley was scapegoated in Vietnam. Meet the new war, same as the old war.

Click here for the Winter Soldier film web page. Click here for the transcript of the Winter Soldier investigation testimony from the Congressional Record. Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2006 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)