Staged by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and funded in part by celebrities like Jane Fonda (aka Hanoi Jane) and Donald Sutherland, as well as other anti-war activists, the Winter Soldier Investigation was an attempt to heighten awareness of the alleged war crimes being committed by American soldiers in Vietnam, and in the words printed on the invitations, ‘preclude the further scapegoating of individual soldiers for what is in fact Official United States Military Policy’. Held over three days in early 1971 at a Detroit Howard Johnson hotel, the investigation saw over 100 veterans give testimony of atrocities they claimed to have either committed or seen during their tours of duty in Vietnam.
The event was documented by a coalition of filmmakers, who credited themselves as the Winterfilm Collective. Using donated equipment and film stock, they shot the documentary over four days and nights in Detroit, and spent eight months editing the footage, which included interviews with some of the veterans, interspersed with colour photographs taken in Vietnam. The result is a shocking anti-war film that strives to demonstrate that atrocities committed against civilians – from murder to rape and torture – were ‘standard operating procedure’, tacitly approved by the government as a means of conducting the war against the Viet Cong. Although Winter Soldier won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, it failed to secure a release in the US and was largely ignored by the mainstream media.
For the veterans involved, the investigation was a chance to lay blame at the feet of a military machine accused of encouraging brutality. One angry and ashamed veteran shows a photograph (eerily reminiscent of some of the images to come out of Abu Ghraib) of himself smiling over a dead body, urging the audience ‘not to let your government do this to you’. The litany of atrocities cited in the documentary paints a portrait of a vicious war that dehumanised both the young soldiers and their civilian victims, who, according to the testimony, were little more than animals, faceless ‘gooks’.
The stories recounted by the vets in the film are truly horrifying. But while Winter Soldier is a seriously disturbing film, it’s also extremely controversial. Critics (including veterans) have long claimed that many of the so-called vets who testified had never served in Vietnam; that the accounts of atrocities were either fabricated or exaggerated; and that the whole exercise was a case of anti-war propaganda that unfairly demonised veterans (see wintersoldier.com for an elaborate rebuttal to the investigation). John Kerry’s involvement in the hearing (although he appears only briefly in the film, he was a spokesman for VVAW and gave testimony in front of Congress later in 1971) explains the animosity he encountered from veterans during the 2004 US presidential election.
Winter Soldier is a powerful documentary that needs to be watched with a critical mind; most soldiers in Vietnam were not the monsters portrayed in the film. But regardless of the controversy, it’s a fascinating record both of an era and of a protest movement which, although well-intended, may possibly have used the same kind of heavy-handed propaganda tactics as the power it sought to criticise.