Winter Soldier is a harrowing film in which Vietnam veterans confess
to atrocities. How did it come about? John Patterson finds out
Monday May 12, 2008
His testimony was shocking, yet he still believed in the war. The
year was 1971 and Scott Camil, a marine just back from 20 months in
Vietnam, wanted to talk about what he had seen and done there: "My
testimony involves burning of villages with civilians in them, the
cutting off of ears, cutting off of heads, torturing of prisoners,
calling in of artillery on villages for games, corpsmen killing
wounded prisoners ... "
In agonising, often sickening detail, Camil talked about these things
for a long time. David Grubin, whose camera was filming the marine,
was stunned. Grubin had come to Detroit, Michigan, to film three days
of testimony by soldiers, marines and airmen who had recently
returned from south-east Asia and were anxious to speak publicly
about war crimes and atrocities they had both witnessed and
committed. Named in homage to a Tom Paine remark about "summer
soldiers and sunshine patriots", the Winter Soldier Investigations
were organised by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, in which future
Senator John Kerry was a leading figure. "Camil's testimony was a
total shock to me," Grubin recalls. "I was so innocent and naive. I
went along with strong political convictions, and it became a
profound emotional experience."
Winter Soldier - the documentary about the investigations that Grubin
was helping to make - would have a profound effect on Camil, who
later wrote that it was "more pivotal to me than any experience in my
life except for Vietnam". He added: "It was the way the film-makers
conducted their interviews that made me think, look at the big
picture, and understand that the Vietnamese were humans. They asked
the right questions, and I owe them a debt of gratitude."
Winter Soldier, which has just been rereleased, has no directorial
credit. It was shot by a rapidly assembled collective of 19
film-makers, many of whom later became acclaimed documentarians,
including Barbara Kopple, the Oscar-winning director of Harlan County
USA. Michael Lesser, one of the editors of Winter Soldier, remembers
the shoot as a loose, improvised affair: "We went to this Howard
Johnson's hotel," he says. About 100 veterans turned up. "We shot
with borrowed stock and borrowed lights, and we slept on floors. We
didn't plan a whole documentary, we just filmed." Grubin agrees:
"Today, you'd have a production manager who'd call up camera, sound,
lighting. This was more like, 'Who's gonna bring the stock?' I don't
even know where the stock came from, but we really just threw it together."
Kopple remembers that meetings were often dominated by celebrity
consciousness-raisers Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, who were
touring their antiwar theatre revue FTA ("Fuck the Army!") to
military bases all over the country. They helped fund the hearings.
"We shared hotel rooms and slept on floors," says Kopple. "Each
evening Jane and Donald would ask us, 'What did you guys film today?
What did you get out of this politically?' And most of us couldn't
even keep our eyes open!"
The shattering testimony continued: beheadings, heads on pikes, ears
traded for beers, disembowelment, mass rapes, the murder of children
for throwing stones at troops, of the elderly, of anyone in the
so-called "free-fire zones". The long-haired, bearded vets look like
hippies, not soldiers, but they have seen and done things that have
put them way beyond peace and love, or tears of regret.
Such chastening material proved hard to exhibit, even in those molten
times. The event itself snagged a total of three minutes' coverage on
the three big networks. The movie couldn't find a major distributor,
and the networks refused even to show excerpts. "I remember going to
CBS to show them the movie," says Grubin. "I was in the room when
they said, 'We can never show this.' There was a whole different
mindset then about journalism and news. It had to be done by
professionals and they determined the story. Today, it's the complete
opposite: people are drowning in news, and there's no perspective
whatsoever. Back then, you couldn't get out a story that today would
be snapped up. This story had such an honest and heartfelt truth -
how could you deny these guys' experiences?"
After a few arthouse showings in 1972, Winter Soldier simply
disappeared. When the movie was rereleased in the US in 2005 - partly
in response to attempts, in the 2004 election, to smear John Kerry
over his war record - a special screening was held, with the crew and
the vets. "We didn't realise that the theatre was also filled with
Afghanistan and Iraq vets," says Kopple. "The Iraq guys got up and
spoke with the Vietnam vets, and their stories were so similar, the
cadences of their voices were exactly the same. It was remarkable."
In March this year, Winter Soldier: Afghanistan and Iraq was convened
in Silver Spring, Maryland. Much of the testimony, from 200 veterans,
offered a chilling echo of its Vietnam forerunner. It was filmed by
David Zeiger - who directed Sir! No Sir!, an extraordinary history of
insubordination, mutinies and troop rebellions in Vietnam - so it
should be in good hands. The only mainstream news outlet that
bothered to show up was the Washington Post.
· Winter Soldier is out now