By Mark Borchardt on 20th November 2014
The Vietnam War will remain an eternal point of contention to many. And we’ve been exposed to much footage of it, as it was the war that was brought to us in our living rooms via the evening news for the first time. Yet, graphic as some of that footage may have been, it was surely a censored version of events.
So, it’s with 1972’s “Winter Soldier” that many jaw-dropping atrocities committed by American soldiers are brought to light. I won’t describe them here and some are quite shocking. This is not an “anti-American” film, but rather an upfront documentation of horrors perpetrated by our own boys. And what’s made more startling is that we are face-to-face with these guys, real guys, our guys, as they straight-forward describe their macabre misadventures and lament their misdeeds in the name of their country. These are not dramatic puppets in a pre-coordinated narrative show contrived to make an ideological point but there to unabatedly tell it like it was.
This riveting film takes place in Detroit during the “Winter Soldier Investigation” in January and February of 1971 and is put on the Congressional record that spring. It was created to allow testimony of returning troops and of the hidden atrocities that took place in that war-torn country.
It’s filmed in grainy black and white 16mm and that look gives it an ironic feeling of detached being there. Color segments of village burnings, interrogations and such are menacingly interspersed throughout the film in stills and footage. These are to compliment the various retellings of horrid situations and these breaks from the general b/w feel offer an unsettling alternate reality to what‘s being verbally described.
A fascinating array of ex-military personnel give testimony. They are civilians now and most sport long hair, a direct contradiction to the strict militaristic appearances they once possessed. And they are free now – of duty that is – but not really free at all as visions of their past misdeeds will always haunt them. You’ll even get a quick glimpse of now Secretary of State John Kerry in his younger version, as he gets a few seconds of screen time querying the anguished troops.
They are trained killing machines and hardcore military discipline has made them so. And many of them, at the time, truly believed that they were committing all of that mayhem for the ultimate good of their country; even if it included the blind murdering of civilian men, women and children.
Some soldiers break down, others remain controlled. And overall, it’s startling to encounter the environment of realistic confession in an actual circumstance, and not in the generic context of drama for drama’s sake. And it’s all the more unsettling that many of these guys can relate these circumstances in matter-of-fact tones; these are some of the most riveting talking heads you’ll encounter. Man’s inhumanity to man is made resoundingly clear in these harrowing series of sadistic stories and it’s a crash-course in hardcore psychology and what it takes to turn a blind eye and a stone heart to that fellow man. And the trick was that the military convinced them that they weren’t actually their fellow man.
Assuredly this was a hard film to come across at the time and most likely found safe harbor in universities across the country. The Kent State killings had just occurred a few years before its release so the campuses were still quite rife with the memories of that tragic event.
For the cineaste, this documentary really possesses that early Seventies feel with its stark black and white look. And it’s a hell of a time capsule to witness real people in real times using real language. So, anyone interested in the presence of that murky era, while indulging some brutal revelations of a dividing war, would do well to check out this rarely seen film.