'Winter Soldier', a Remembrance of Vietnam Atrocities

More than 30 years after it was filmed, a documentary that chronicles war crimes committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam is being re-released. The film, Winter Soldier, is based on the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, in which Vietnam veterans testified to atrocities they witnessed or participated in.

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Back in 1971, a group of veterans opposed to the Vietnam War gathered in Detroit. They held what they called hearings on war atrocities that they witnessed and committed. The proceedings were filmed and turned into a documentary called "Winter Soldier." Few people in the United States got to see that film when it debuted in 1972. More than three decades later, though, "Winter Soldier" is being re-released as Jon Kalish reports.

JON KALISH reporting:

Vietnam Veterans Against the War held the Winter Soldier investigation at a Detroit motel in late January 1971. There were three days of emotionally wrenching testimony in which former soldiers described how they massacred civilians and tortured prisoners of war.

(Soundbite of "Winter Soldier")

Unidentified Man #1: You're so scared that you'll shoot anything. You'll look at your enemy, you'll look at them as animals and in the same time just turning yourself into an animal, too. And I'd say that's got my head spinning a little right now, the fact that I was actually at one time an animal and that now I have to come back and be civil again.

KALISH: It was all recorded by Winterfilm, a collective of 18 anti-war filmmakers. The week after the Winter Soldier hearings, a 17-minute version of the documentary was prepared for the anti-war movement. Amy Heller is a co-owner of Milliarium Zero, the company that is re-releasing the "Winter Soldier" documentary.

Ms. AMY HELLER (Milliarium Zero): It was a really passionate experience for all of them. It gave them the feeling of what film could do and how powerful a tool film could be and how important a part of that whole process of social change their own contribution could be.

KALISH: At the conclusion of the Winter Soldier hearings, there were calls for a full congressional investigation into war atrocities. Former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey represented a district in Northern California in 1971. He and other members of Congress tried to hold official hearings to look into the horrific acts the veterans described.

Former Representative PETE McCLOSKEY (California): I don't think many people in Congress wanted to hear about atrocities. They didn't want to think that American soldiers were capable of torture or shooting civilians or women and children. It was as it is today, when American troops are dying in some foreign place, Americans don't really want to look at the hard facts of why they're dying and how they're dying and what they're doing.

KALISH: The lawmakers placed a transcript of the veterans' testimony in the Congressional Record and held ad hoc hearings on war atrocities in April. That same month, one of the leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a young John Kerry, testified about the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A week of anti-war protests ended with vets throwing their medals at the Capitol. The "Winter Soldier" documentary didn't debut for another year, until May 1972, when it was shown at the Whitney Museum in New York.

(Soundbite of "Winter Soldier")

Unidentified Man #2: I decided at that point that I would kill anyone I could, you know, knowing whether they were innocent or not, just to make sure I wouldn't get killed. And that was my philosophy. Like, if I'd go into a village and have to kill a hundred people just to make sure there was no one there to shoot me when I walked out, that's what I did.

KALISH: The film was also shown at the Cannes Film Festival, in theaters in Europe and on German TV. The only American television broadcast of "Winter Soldier" was in the fall of 1972 on WNET, New York's public TV outlet.

Mr. BOB WESTIN(ph) (Formerly of ABC): I think people in charge view this kind of material as stuff that ought to get on but not in my shop, thank you.

KALISH: Bob Westin ran ABC television's documentary unit when "Winter Soldier" came out. ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS all declined to air the film. Although TV news coverage of the war had become more skeptical, Westin says that a film like "Winter Soldier" was still too incendiary.

Mr. WESTIN: Everyone was aware at that time--you're talking '72, '73--that the Nixon administration had generated an enemies list. I think there would have been an extreme degree of caution in terms of doing something as provocative to the Nixon administration as running "Winter Soldier."

KALISH: "Winter Soldier" ran at one New York theater for a week, but otherwise, it had no theatrical release. Over the years, some college professors have used the film to teach the history of the Vietnam War. Kenneth Campbell, a Vietnam vet who helped organize the Winter Soldier hearings and appears in the film, teaches political science at the University of Delaware.

Mr. KENNETH CAMPBELL (University of Delaware): If you just attended the hearings and sat there for three days, they would numb you. There was just so much it would overload you. But to cut it down and have only 95 minutes of this, it was more powerful than I thought a film could be. And I think to this day, it rocks you to watch it.

(Soundbite of "Winter Soldier")

Unidentified Man #3: The more people we killed, the happier our officers were, you know? It got to be like a game. Like, the object was to see who could kill the most people, and the different ways you could prove how many people you killed would be, like, cutting off ears.

KALISH: Many of the filmmakers who created "Winter Soldier" went on to produce other highly acclaimed documentaries and win Academy Awards.

Mr. MICHAEL LESSER (Filmmaker): It was ultimately part of the flowering and the fruition of the anti-war movement.

KALISH: Michael Lesser was a member of the original Winterfilm collective.

Mr. LESSER: I think that films like "Winter Soldier," other films made at the time, and certainly our protest movement, had a huge amount of effect on how that war came to an end. It seems that the film will have wider play now than it did then, and I think that when people see "Winter Soldier," I don't think you can help but be morally and spiritually and emotionally impacted. And when you do that, hopefully that's what helps to create change.

KALISH: "Winter Soldier" is currently playing in New York. In the coming months, it will be shown at theaters in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities. Milliarium Zero plans to release a DVD of "Winter Soldier" in January. The filmmakers are still hoping to see the documentary broadcast on television.

For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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