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Winter Soldier - The Film

Why did it take 30 years for this film to get a national release?

San Francisco Chronicle, September 2, 2005
by Jonathan Curiel

"Four-Star" designation (Little Man Jumping out Of Seat)

Why did it take 30 years for this film to get a national release? Why did ABC, NBC, CBS and PBS reject "Winter Soldier" when it was offered to them at the height of the Vietnam War? The answers are obvious from the movie's opening scenes, when a Vietnam veteran describes in detail some of the war crimes allegedly committed by American soldiers, including the practice of taking Vietnamese prisoners onto aircraft, binding them with copper wire, then throwing the soldiers from the sky.

The sickening pattern of acts to which these soldiers attest — the slicing of ears, the raping of women, the slaughtering of children, — was too much for an American media unwilling to face the truth: The United States was betraying its own principles in a war that was ostensibly about rescuing people from a vicious enemy.

"Winter Soldier" has obvious parallels to the war in Iraq, where American abuses at Abu Ghraib have come to symbolize the ironies of toppling a tyrant, only to have the occupying forces resort to their own tyranny. The exact symmetries between Iraq and Vietnam are debatable, but there's no debate that Washington's involvement in both wars has had troubling consequences — which in the case of Vietnam was captured with candor by the documentarians who made "Winter Soldier."

They didn't have to fly to Saigon for the footage. Instead, they drove to Detroit, where a young returning soldier named John Kerry and other members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War were organizing a truth commission for returning vets. The goal of the 1971 hearings was to tell the American public about the unpleasant realities on the ground in Vietnam — and to give the soldiers a way to heal their own guilt at harming civilians (or witnessing their slaughtering).

"I didn't like being an animal," says one veteran. "They (the Vietcong) weren't humans," says another. "They were 'a gook' or 'a Commie.' " In graphic words, another describes the disembowelment of a woman.

The hearings lasted three days. During last year's presidential election, Kerry's actions during Vietnam, the Detroit hearings and the subsequent march on Washington, in which veterans threw medals onto the steps of the Capitol, were a source of endless controversy.

"Winter Soldier" is a rare time capsule of collective dissent. Bravery, too. It took strength for these once-proud military men to admit the wrongs they experienced in the name of the United States. The feel of "Winter Soldier" (from its mostly black-and-white footage to the hippieish appearances of the ex-soldiers) is straight from 1971, but the soldiers' sentiments could just as well have been conveyed today about Iraq. Their visible anguish is a sobering reality check about the nature of war.

— Advisory: Extreme language and descriptions; photos showing wartime abuse and death.


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About Milliarium Zero Milestone Film & Video