Winter Soldier

In George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, we get a brief glimpse of the Winter Soldier press conferences that took place over three days in Detroit in February and March of 1972. Now, the 1972 documentary of these press conferences, Winter Soldier, is receiving a limited re-release here in DC and in a few other major cities (Kerry appears briefly in the 1972 documentary). During these press conferences, several panels of young soldiers reported on unimaginable atrocities committed by US soldiers in all branches of the military. The film opens with a brief voice-over explaining the source of the title, before immediately moving into pilot Rusty Sachs’ testimony, in which he describes watching as blindfolded Vietnamese prisoners are pushed out of airplanes, a practice he describes as routine. Other soldiers add to this picture, describing atrocities that were relatively common practice.

Visually, the film is stunning in its immediacy, using a cinema verite style to capture the sense of urgency these soldiers clearly feel. In many sequences, the filmmakers favor close-ups, with soldiers such as Scott Camil speaking directly into the camera about the atrocities they witnessed. The documentary is entirely in black-and-white except for fleeting color photgraphs (and perhaps some color Super 8 footage) of the fresh-faced soldiers in Vietnam, creating a stark visual contrast.

Winter Soldier was so controversial that it did not play widely on television or in theaters in the 1970s, playing primarily in smaller venues such as the Whitney Museum, and it’s worth noting that the film’s re-release was held back until after the 2004 Presidential election out of concern that it might negatively effect Kerry’s chances in the election.

This decision speaks to the film’s relevance even today. During one sequence, in which a soldier describes their (lck of) training in the Geneva Conventions, it’s impossible not to think about the actions of teh soldiers in Abu Ghraib, as Amy Heller points out in this interview with Anthony Kaufman. But aside from the press conference itself, I found many of the “backstage” moments utterly compelling, in particular one sequence in which an African-American soldier comments on the degree to which a history racism informs the treatment of Vietnamese people as less than human (Anne Hornaday, in an incredibly insightful review, also found this scene to be pivotal).

Hornaday also notes the degree to which several of the soldiers, particularly Camil, are struggling in front of the camera “not only with their experiences overseas but also with the very definition of manhood, whether as constructed by cultural mores or one’s own inner code.” Winter Solider is a powerful experience, not simply as an anti-war document (although that is certainly important), but also as a document of a certain moment in American history when the soldiers’ experiences in the war were forcing them to grapple with questions of race and masculinity.

7 Comments »

  1. Diana Said,

    December 14, 2005 @ 2:31 pm

    I saw Winter Soldier about a month ago. I was struck by this: in the 70s there was a visible alternative masculinity for those soldiers to adopt — nearly everyone in the film has long hair and a beard. Not to mention, there was an anti-war movement for them to be part of.

    I don’t mean that it was easy for those soldiers to move to the anti-war side and speak out, but what is there to join now if you’re a disgusted ex-soldier? Recently, a former Abu Ghraib guard (civilian? soldier? I can’t remember) was interviewed on democracynow.org, and Amy Goodman had to pull the words out of him. He absolutely would not say any names of superior officers and was very sparse on details. This lone scared man in a radio station was such a contrast to those panels of soldiers whose dress signified their allegiance with an entire movement. And such a contrast to their full, angry speeches. They had an organization that allowed them to go so far as to name officers and burn medals and speak on record.

  2. Chuck Said,

    December 14, 2005 @ 2:41 pm

    Diana, that’s a good point. The long hair, beard, and alternative dress were explicit signifiers that don’t function in the same way today. And I think you’re right to note that it wasn’t “easy” for these soldiers to move to an anti-war position, as Scott Camil’s testimony illustrates (he clearly seems to be agonizing over what he’s telling us about his relationship to the war).

    In terms of finding a language for speaking out, that’s a tough question. Of course, we have blogs by soldiers who are critical of the war and documentaries, such as Occupation: Dreamland that convey opposition, but the Winter Soldier images are powerful in both the solidarity of the soldiers and the passion and anger of their speeches.

    I’ll have to try to find that interview on Demcocracy Now. I got out of the habit of listening when I move to Atlanta a few years ago, but since it’s available online, I really *should* be listening to it.

  3. Chuck Said,

    December 14, 2005 @ 9:55 pm

    Diana, if you happen back by, I’m guessing this is the Democracy Now interview you mentioned?

    Watching this interview on Media Player was actually pretty powerful, but you’re right to note that the “lone man” does stand in contrast to the panels of soldiers at the Winter Soldier conference.

  4. Chuck Said,

    December 14, 2005 @ 10:08 pm

    Here’s one fairly powerful moment in the interview with TONY LAGOURANIS, the interrogator who was interviewed on Democracy Now:

    “I think that using torture is the worst possible thing we could do. You cannot win a war against terrorism with bombs and force. It doesn’t work. You have to win hearts and minds and we’re really failing. You know, using torture is absolutely the wrong way to go. And we’re not getting any intel out of it, either. Like how many people did we get intel out of in Guantanamo? You know, a small handful, and in Abu Ghraib also. I didn’t work there for that long, but many of my friends did they worked there all of 2004, and they told me, they got nothing. They got no intel out of that place.”

  5. Chuck Said,

    December 14, 2005 @ 10:25 pm

    Related: Here’s a recent editorial from The Nation condemning torture and calling for support of the McCain defense appropriations amendment, which would prohibit torture.

  6. Diana Said,

    December 15, 2005 @ 8:50 am

    Yes, that was the Democracy Now interview. Even its better moments, like the one you cite, are still a little vague. –I think, in addition to his being alone in the studio, he must be aware of his marginality in the media. Democracy Now isn’t watched by everyone; at that conference room in Detroit, you saw all these ordinary-looking people in the audience, not at all leftist or alterna types.

    Thanks for the link to the Nation editorial. I look forward to reading that special issue.

    At some point, I would like to re-read Badiou’s Ethics and think about what other critiques of torture there are, besides the moral/human rights one and the one that the interviewee gives here, the efficacy one.

  7. Chuck Said,

    December 15, 2005 @ 11:20 am

    Good point about Democracy Now’s “marginality.” He did mention a Forntline interview that he had done previously, so I wonder to what extent his responses might have been “scripted.”

    Thanks for the suggestion about Badiou as well. Lagouranis implicitly refers to some of these “human rights” issues, but he primarily seemed to stay on the level of efficacy, as you suggest.

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