THE MOVIE An ordinary-looking, curly-haired young man sits at a table talking to an off-camera interviewer. He reports where and with whom he served in Vietnam, as a captain with a helicopter unit. And with the nonchalance of a guy recounting a morning stroll, he recalls witnessing U.S. soldiers bind presumed Vietcong men’s hands behind their backs, blindfold them with copper wire such that it cut into their eye sockets and noses, and take turns throwing them out of an open helicopter hatch. Whoever threw his quarry the farthest won, the prize more than likely a beer.
From Jan. 31 to Feb 2, 1971, approximately 125 Vietnam veterans gathered at a Detroit hotel to give testimony in the Winter Soldier Investigation, an informal hearing about U.S. war crimes and atrocities in southeast Asia. These testimonies came shortly after the fall 1970 My Lai incident courts martial and were an effort to demonstrate that that massacre of more than 350 Vietnamese wasn’t an aberration but standard operating procedure of engagement. A then-anonymous coalition of 18 filmmakers—including director Barbara Kopple and soundman Roger Phenix—convened to document the proceedings. What they produced, 1972’s Winter Soldier, screened at a few European festivals, ran for one week at one New York theater, and pretty much disappeared until a limited theatrical release last year.
Shot on the fly in black and white, Soldier is basically unadulterated reportage. No structure or arc is grafted onto the footage—it’s just a constant barrage of eyewitness accounts of what these young men witnessed and did. One saw a former Marine and then-USAID representative disembowel a still-breathing young woman, slicing her from her vagina to her breasts and pulling her intestines out. One remembers his platoon stoning a young Vietnamese boy because he verbally taunted them as they drove by; another recalls his first day in the country, when he saw a lieutenant shoot and kill a kid for flipping them off. Rapes, tortures, village eradications, and the casual, institutional rationale for doing so are enumerated. And they just keep coming and coming and coming.
Two things are immediately remarkable a few moments into this 95-minute gut punch. One is that these men, most in their early 20s, look like visibly broken human shells searching desperately for any shred of humanity they may have left in them. The second is that a quarter century of Vietnam movies, many depicting these very acts in gruesome detail, hasn’t dulled the impact of such blank-eyed narration one bit. Parts of this document are absolutely horrible to endure—which makes it absolutely essential to do so.
The title is an allusion to the opening lines in Thomas Paine’s first article in his “The Crisis” series, dated Dec. 23, 1776: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” And in one of this documentary’s many unnerving, prescient moments, a young vet shows color slides from his tour, ashamedly displaying one he can barely talk about: In it he crouches by a contorted, dead Vietnamese man’s body and smiles proudly from ear to ear. As the picture lingers on the screen, he barely gets out a warning: “Don’t let your government do this to you.”
THE DISC Milliarium packs this DVD with as many extras as it can muster for this rarely seen account. It gathered the filmmakers together for a round-table remembrance of Winter Soldier’s making. Two shorts composed of outtakes—“Americal Division” and “First Marine Division”—present the testimonies of specific units. A trailer, stills gallery, subtitle options, a DVD ROM, and Graham Nash’s “Oh Camil (The Winter Soldier)” round out the usual bells and whistles. And the short “Seasoned Veteran: The Journey of a Winter Soldier” catches up with one of the testifying vets, Scott Camil, a young man lost when he became a Marine and so exponentially more traumatized by his two tours that he barely seems human in 1971. Seeing him old and gray and smiling is one of the few bright moments in an otherwise unrelenting account of the evil that man can do.