He can’t remember how many times he’d seen prisoners bound and blindfolded with copper wire and thrown from mobile US aircraft, but Rusty Sachs, 27 year-old veteran of the US Marine Air Wing, thinks it must have been somewhere between 15 and 50. Sachs describes this activity, performed in the spirit of competition (the prisoners were being tossed from choppers not only for sadistic amusement or some perverse notion of efficiency, but to see who could throw theirs the furthest), in the opening moments of Winter Solider (1972). This documentary, chronicling the Winter Solider Investigation, which took place during the winter of 1971 in a Detroit Howard Johnson, wisely gets right down to business. Nothing that’s discussed over the course of the film’s 96-minute running time is for the faint of heart or anyone nurturing illusions about Americans in Vietnam. Winter Solider, along with Hearts and Minds, is one of the essential films about Vietnam, and as such is utterly devastating.
The film was produced by the Winterfilm Collective, which included Sachs, documentarian David Grubin, and Barbara Kopple, who would go on to make Harlan County, USA (76), another of the greatest, most valiant nonfiction films of the era. But the decision to attribute Winter Soldier to a collective rather than a single filmmaker or even handful of filmmakers is appropriate. Few films seem as necessarily subservient to simply assembling participants for the purpose of condensing and conveying vital information. What sensibility emerges feels very much the product of likeminded activists whose private ambitions are secondary to the event unfolding before the cameras. Solidarity is woven into the film’s core. All we get, interspersed with footage from the war, are testimonies, both formal (speakers on stage, with a microphone, before a small public) and informal (veterans and citizens comparing notes during breaks in the hearings). Among those veterans who speak out against the war is future Presidential candidate John Kerry. The images, particularly the long, unbroken close-ups, are somewhat overexposed, with lots of hot white in the Caucasian faces, the details blasted from the background, nothing to distract from what’s being said and how, all of it very wintry indeed.
What’s discussed? The list of atrocities could consume the span of this review and some. Torture, rape, mutilation, humiliation, disembowelment, destruction of property. The slaughter of children. The regarding of all Vietnamese as the enemy, especially once they’re dead. Wildly inflated body counts. Nightmares. Patriotism. Racism, perhaps as a bottom line that goes so much deeper into history and the social fabric than the then-current conflict. Soft-spoken and handsome in his dark beard, Scott Camil, who was discharged after having received 13 medals and attained the rank of Sergeant, recalls going to Vietnam to find out what kind of a man he was. Even after witnessing countless flamboyant violations of the Geneva Convention, Camil still believed he was doing what was right for his country. Beyond the atrocities committed, beyond policy, beyond whatever we can regard as history or as an ongoing, fundamental concern about government and war, Winter Solider haunts us with the question of how it is Scott Camil became what he became for the four years he served. At least we know that whatever he became, he could somehow, eventually, come back from it, and tell his story.
Winter Soldier screens this weekend at Edmonton's Metro Cinema.