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Winter Soldier - The Film

A must see
Taking responsibility for what happens in war is the subject of a searing documentary.

Chicago Reader, September 16, 2005
Arms and Men by Jonathan Rosenbaum

I first saw Winter Soldier, a 1972 documentary about the Winter Soldier investigation held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971, shortly after it was made. For years I remembered that the participants repeatedly broke down, but when I saw the film again recently only one soldier who testified was fighting back tears. The others were mostly calm and thoughtful, despite the horrors they recounted. I concluded that I'd been remembering my own response, not theirs.

I always thought this was the most important film we had about this country's tragic involvement in Vietnam, and I still do. It's almost as potent today as it was when it was released, and I suspect it's rarely screened because what it reveals about wartime atrocities and government policies is very hard to face. This is especially true because the soldiers who describe their personal experiences are ordinary Americans and easy to identify with, though at the time some reviewers thought their long hair destroyed their credibility.

The soldiers also describe their fears, their grief at the loss of friends, their frustration at not having been able to understand the languages they heard or distinguish friend from foe. None of this justifies tossing prisoners out of planes, raping and murdering civilians, or randomly burning villages. But it does offer a context in which these and other criminal acts become comprehensible.

During the last presidential campaign, John Kerry's supporters and opponents both alluded to the film and used clips from it, though not in a way that did any justice to the force and conviction of the testimony. As it happens, Kerry appears only briefly, asking a question near the beginning, and he's only one of 30 vets seen over the course of the 95-minute film.

Winter Soldier isn't the most informative American documentary about Vietnam from the viewpoint of the Vietnamese, a distinction that belongs to Emile de Antonio's 1968 In the Year of the Pig. Instead it's a kind of toxic potion made by and for Americans, its title derived from Thomas Paine's 1776 statement "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 his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

I couldn't call this film a masterpiece, only indispensable. It was directed by a collective of 19 people — some of whom, such as Barbara Kopple, have since become much better known and even celebrated — and the filmmaking is rather crude and perfunctory. But ultimately this is of little importance. What counts are the soldiers themselves and what they say. Their simple reality exposes the well-made, Oscar-winning, racist fantasies of The Deer Hunter as unconscionable acts of self-justification and self-deception.

Winter Soldier
Credited to a collective of 19 individuals — including filmmaker Barbara Kopple — this record of testimony given during the 1971 Winter Soldier investigation in Detroit is more document than documentary, but it may be the most important account we have of America's tragic encounter with Vietnam. The hearings, organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, allowed combat veterans to report, with honesty and unforced eloquence, their observations, experiences, and war crimes (and those crimes' relation to government policy). Deeply upsetting and long unavailable, this remains essential viewing. 96 min. — Jonathan Rosenbaum


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