Winter Soldier: A Retrospective Review

“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.” – taken from The Crisis by Thomas Paine, 1776

The term Winter Soldier has in recent times, become synonymous with the Marvel Film franchise, particularly the Captain America thread, in which Steve Roger’s closest friend and ally is abducted, physically enhanced and brain-washed into fighting for ‘the enemy’. But the origin of the term implies a very different meaning. It comes from the above quote by British-born, American Founding Father and writer Thomas Paine. The title of this documentary film is named after the Winter Soldier Investigation which took place in Detroit in 1971 and was organised by the group Veterans of Vietnam Against the War (VVAW). The film was produced by The Winterfilm Collective, an expansive group which included documentary filmmakers Barbara Kopple and David Grubin.

Scott Camil gives a candid account of some of his experiences in the Marines Corps during the Vietnam War.

Winter Soldier (1972) is a 95-minute documentary film that records the accounts of a large number of Vietnam War veterans as they share stories about the war crimes they witnessed and in a lot of cases took part in, during their time serving in the U.S. military in the Vietnam War. This is not easy to watch. The accounts are often cripplingly horrific and describe the reckless abandon with which the American troops treated the innocent civilians and enemy combatants during their time in-country.

These brave veterans took part in the Winter Soldier Hearings and shared their horrific experiences for the purpose of attempting to bring an end to the war in Vietnam. By 1971, the war was still raging and American military personnel were still dying on a daily basis. Not to mention the ongoing slaughter of the indigenous population. A lot of the blame is placed on the training they received and the indoctrination of a certain type of viewpoint that all Vietnamese people were “gooks” and in effect, dehumanised by the higher chain of command.

The mental scars left by the ravages of war are laid bare in the tears of the veterans as they recount a litany of atrocities.

Many of the men recounting their stories seem to have had a traumatic and life-changing experience in the war. Most of them admit to having believed in the cause when they enlisted, but later became disillusioned after realising the extent of the wanton slaughter that was being indulged in by the American contingent. Tales of torture and mutilation seem to be commonplace. In a lot of cases, the men cite the lack of restraint by the higher chain of command as one reason as to why these atrocities were so widespread as to become normalised. On the contrary, most recount instances where they had been actively encouraged by a ranking officer to either take part in illegal killings or turn a blind eye.

“If nobody tells you it’s wrong then you do it anyway.” ARVN soldiers and U.S. “advisers” torture a captured P.O.W.

When commanders actively encourage this behaviour and there is nobody to tell you when to kill and when not to, the very worst behaviour becomes normalised. Torture, chemical weapons, massacres, rape, and other terrible mistreatment of prisoners that would be considered war crimes according to the Geneva Convention are all listed off within the first fifteen minutes of watching this incredible record of testimonies. “Don’t ever let your government do this to you” is the reason given for testifying by one former marine after he admits to posing for a photograph with a dead body. This is reminiscent of scenes from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987).

The backgrounds of all the soldiers are diverse. Middle class, lower class, all American ethnicities including Native American. They all share a painful and nightmarish collective experience and they were all so uncomfortable with what they witnessed in Vietnam that they spoke out. What we witness is a group of young men who are angry at their government for indoctrinating them into mass murder. Their attitude towards the reasons for the war and the U.S. Government of the time was reflecting the more widespread anti-war movement of the day. By the end of the 1960s and the beginning of a new decade, young Americans en masse were protesting against the war and likewise, the civil rights movement was also at odds with the system.

Much like our current political climate, social unrest and violent demonstrations were happening all over the country, and the veterans from Winter Soldier were re-acclimatised to the feeling of their generation after returning home from the war. This was a feeling of injustice, that the war was racist, the war was wrong and crimes were being committed on a huge scale. What’s more, it had become obvious to them that the war was ultimately unwinnable and this only made the death toll even worse as all that blood had been spilt to no end. As one participant states “The only purpose I had was surviving and getting the hell out.”

A student of Kent State University in Ohio cries out after U.S troops open fire on a peaceful anti-war demonstration on the campus, killing four and injuring another nine. May 4, 1970.

After the Nixon Administration had sent in the National Guard at Kent State University in May 1970, killing four American students, the protests reached a fever pitch. This was a tipping point for some of the soldiers, seeing their government use deadly force against its own innocent civilians was just too much. One can see how difficult it is for these brave men to share these dark accounts and the sense of conflict that they all have to live with having once been part of the machine that they were now admonishing.

Winter Soldier is an important film. One that was buried upon release, with many critics either ignoring it completely or attacking it as communist propaganda. The Vietnam war has always been a very sore subject for many reasons, but perhaps mostly for the fact that these war crimes were carried out dutifully as if commonplace, yet resembled the kind of apocalyptic carnage that was beforehand only associated with the Nazis of the Second World War and the bloody dictatorship of Stalin. In Vietnam, it was the United States of America that once again acted as the despotic aggressor, willing to unleash hell on a less-developed and relatively impoverished population, to the brink of genocide. Much as it had done to the Native American population a century prior, American Imperialism once again equated to untold suffering, unfathomable bloodshed and for many, a great sense of shame. To be listed amongst the very best anti-war documentaries and an important record of recent history, Winter Soldier will appeal to anyone with an interest in history, documentary films and of course, war.

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Greg Fisher
Greg is a digital content creator, photographer, filmmaker and writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @theflyingartist