While the Oscar-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) is probably the definitive cinematic exploration of the Vietnam War to be released during the war, the lesser-known doc Winter Soldier is an important companion piece. Unfairly marginalized during its original release, Winter Soldier encapsulates a three-day press conference that Vietnam Veterans Against the War presented in Detroit in early 1971. During the event, dozens of vets spoke publicly about war crimes they had committed and/or observed in Southeast Asia, painting a horrific picture of U.S. troops murdering, raping, and torturing Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, sometimes with the tacit approval of officers and sometimes by direct command from superiors. Among the illusions the speakers tried to dispel was the notion that the U.S. military’s daily body counts included only combat personnel. According to the vets in Winter Soldier, even an infant killed by a bomb that a pilot dropped out of boredom was reported to HQ as a righteous “kill.”
Given this film’s incendiary content, it’s remarkable that antiwar protestors failed to use Winter Soldier as a rallying point, and it’s telling that mainstream media ignored the movie, with all three TV networks refusing offers to air Winter Soldier. At the time this picture was released, huge swaths of America were still in denial about the nature of the Vietnam War. To be fair, the filmmaking collective that created Winter Soldier never intended to practice balanced journalism, per se. The film simply records testimony, along with evidence in the form of photos and film clips that soldiers brought home from Vietnam, with the goal of opening viewers’ eyes to war crimes. What’s more, the filmmakers take the stance that the soldiers giving testimony are themselves victims, having been indoctrinated during basic training to regard Asians as subhuman. This is one-sided agitprop, with the only dissenting voice being a black activist who argues that white soldiers are hypocrites for decrying racial violence abroad while ignoring racial injustice at home.
Questions about its journalistic approach notwithstanding, Winter Soldier is powerful, especially considering that most the footage comprises talking heads. The deeds the speakers describe are shocking. Throwing people out of aircraft for kicks. Skinning victims to send frightening messages to the enemy. Razing villages populated only by civilians. Raping women in the presence of their children. Collecting the ears of victims and wearing them like trophies. Most of the men who testify in Winter Soldier seem tormented by the experiences, and one vet breaks down in tears. Additionally, most blame the war itself, or more specifically the twisted politics behind the war. Left unexplored is the question of consequences. The vets claim they couldn’t do anything to stop atrocities, kicking the blame up the chain of command and thereby effectively absolving themselves.
Considering the moral ambiguities of Winter Soldier raises forces the viewer to engage with the issues that made the Vietnam War such a gruesome international quagmire. As such, Winter Soldier is an essential historical document even though it’s more of a polemic than a dialectic. FYI, Winter Soldier received a significant reissue in 2005, pulling it from obscurity and giving it a place among the key documentaries about Vietnam.
Winter Soldier: GROOVY