Winter Soldiers' Stories

When American soldiers commit atrocities, whatever the locale, the crimes are usually explained away as misguided adventures by a few bad seeds who were poorly trained or twisted from the start, and then lost their bearings in the fog of war.

But just one viewing of the documentary Winter Soldier, a chronicle of testimonies given by the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War, turns the bad seed defense inside out.

The film, shot in Detroit in winter 1971 but not widely released until now, provides first-hand accounts by apparently sane, sensitive soldiers, who witnessed (or committed) the most barbaric acts of brutality as part of their normal, day-to-day tours of duty.

"What should be brought out is the horror of the everyday that went on over there, " said one veteran in the film.

We learn from Cpt. Rusty Hughes about a crew from Philadelphia who got their kicks chucking live prisoners out of helicopters. He tells us that the practice was supported by military orders, which dictated that prisoners be counted once they were unloaded from aircraft not when they were first picked up, as the numbers might not jibe. Winks all around.

We hear from Sgt. Joseph Bangert about a USAID officer who visited a Vietnamese village. Upon arrival, the officer walked over to a dead woman who had been killed by South Vietnamese forces. In full public view, he "ripped her clothes off and took a knife and cut, from her vagina almost all the way up, just about up to her breasts and pulled her organs out, completely out of her cavity, and threw them out. Then, he stopped and knelt over and commenced to peel every bit of skin off her body and left her there as a sign for something or other."

We hear about marines who riddled children with bullets, then laughed out loud; another group stoned a child to death. Body parts, especially ears, were prized -- they could be traded for beers. Friendly villages were used as playgrounds for bored mortar and artillery units, with the losing unit buying drinks for the winners. The winners destroyed the village.

"They would keep a chart on how many kills you had. It was like a hunting trip. The more people you killed, the happier our officers were," said Sgt. Scott Camil, who received 13 medals over the course of two tours with the Marines in Vietnam. The medals were not for bravery, he says in the film, but for acts of indiscriminate killing.

More than 100 veterans testified in the Winter Soldier Investigations, held at a cramped Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge in Detroit from January 31 to February 2, 1971. TV cameras covered the event, but never aired the stories. A group of filmmakers -- many of whom went on to have formidable careers -- recorded the events and edited the material into a 95-minute film.

The veterans in attendance ranked from captains to privates and represented all branches of the military services. They were marines, infantrymen, pilots and Green berets. Their units were spread throughout Vietnam from the years 1963-1970.

John Kerry makes a brief appearance early in the film, in what now seems like a cameo role. He asks an innocuous question and gives no testimony. He is onscreen for less than a minute, but it's this appearance -- and the subsequent medal-throwing rally in Washington D.C. attended by many Winter Soldier vets -- that would be used against Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 presidential campaign.

That same group has challenged the veracity of the veterans' testimonies at Winter Soldier, but with little proof. All those testifying were vetted, with their discharge papers checked and their testimony mapped out against the locations and dates of troop movements.

The film is shot in grainy black and white, with no narration. Scenes of veterans seated at a table testifying are interspersed with color shots taken by the veterans while in Vietnam.

"There's me, holding a dead body, smiling," says one soldier, expressing shame for having once thought it amusing to pose with a corpse.

Watching the film is like experiencing a slow burn: The pain is shocking at first, then you settle in and hope for relief. But relief never comes -- it's impossible to watch Winter Soldier today without thinking about Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, which is why the distributors have chosen to release the film now.

Hearing the vets describe wiping out villages to show "we weren't fucking around," it's hard not to wonder whether the current campaigns euphemistically characterized in the press as "flushing out" insurgents from Sunni villages in Iraq, aren't similarly destroying villages in order to save them.

The vets explain the fear and confusion they felt in not knowing who was Vietcong and who wasn't. "You're scared, you're so scared, you'll shoot at anything.," one man explains. The solution to the friend-or-foe quandary was to report all dead as VC. How did the soldier know they were VC? Simple -- because they were dead.

Compare this to the situation in Iraq. An army vet wounded in Falluja told me how confusing the situation was for him there, and how it was impossible to identify the enemy. "It's so hard because we don't know who the bad guy is. We don't know who to trust."

Then there's my conversation with a man whose brother is in the Air Force. When asked how the serviceman was doing, he said, "Great. He killed 60 bad guys." How did he know they were bad guys? Because they were dead, of course.

The vets in the film are dressed in civilian clothes; many have sweet smiles and gentle voices, making it seem all the more unbelievable that they willingly committed acts of rape, torture, and brutality.

How does this happen? How do seemingly nice young men turn into animals?

The Vietnamese were never people -- they were gooks, dinks, commies, the vets explain in the film. "We were the civilized ones," says one vet. And some veterans -- particularly marines, -- refer to boot camp as the place where the Frankenstein-like transformation from civilian to killer took place.

It is a period of rigorous degradation and humiliation, where petty commanders use sadistic practices to mold boys into men, while all along proclaiming the righteousness of the American cause. These lessons in control and humiliation, the vets said, went with them to Vietnam and were used during interrogations and detentions.

Sgt. Bangert, who told the story about the USAID officer, recounts another chilling memory, which speaks volume about the violent mentality of the armed forces:

"Your last day in the States at staging battalion at Camp Pendleton, you have a little lesson called the rabbit lesson, where the staff NCO comes out [with] a rabbit, and he's talking to you about escape and evasion and survival in the jungle. He has this rabbit, and then in a couple of seconds after just about everyone falls in love with it -- not falls in love with it, but, you know, they're human there -- he cracks it in the neck, skins it, disembowels it, just like I testified that this happened to a woman. He does this to the rabbit, and then they throw the guts out into the audience.
"You can get anything out of that you want, but that's your last lesson you catch in the United States before you leave for Vietnam where they take that rabbit and they kill it, and they skin it, and they play with its organs as if it's trash, and they throw the organs all over the place and then these guys are put on the plane the next day and sent to Vietnam."
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