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‘Winter Soldier’ (1972) is a film that has suffered from de facto censorship for most of its thirty six years. Its recent screening as part of the ‘War at Home’ category in the Berlinale Film Festival affected people in Berlin’s Filmpalast theatre as it did when first screened in the early seventies. It is harrowing viewing. Perhaps never before have words, simple spoken words, had such an affect on a society as this film did in the United States of America in 1972. This was because of the undeniable integrity of the U.S. servicemen articulating the extent of the genocidal operating procedure of the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam. It has since effectively been erased from the public memory. In the eighties and nineties the era of the Vietnam War underwent a full-scale reconstruction with the likes of Hollywood facelifts of the Vietnam veteran with such films as ‘Rambo’, ‘Hamburger Hill’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’. Many people in Berlin were moved by the film as it is once again so relevant to all of us.
Based on the Nuremburg Principles and with the actual guidance of Nuremburg Military Trial judge, General Telford Taylor, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organised the ‘Winter Soldier Investigation’ in Detroit, Michigan over the weekend starting 31st of January 1971. This film came out of that event. It is the testimony of U.S. servicemen returned from Vietnam who spoke of war-crimes that they had witnessed and indeed committed. These ninety-five minutes of film were cut out of the hundreds of hours of footage filmed during the investigation. Over 125 veterans came from all over the country as if attending an act of collective confession. Noam Chomsky also witnessed a number of these war crimes trials by the veterans, and when was interviewed for this article he remembered the participants as “really impressive people doing wonderful work”.
This was only one month after the My Lai massacre became public. My Lai was a U.S. military action in which the whole population of a village was systematically assassinated. This was also immediately after the military draft had ended, and with it the large scale student opposition to the war which up to that point had been growing steadily for a decade, though of course the broad societal rejection of the war was still smouldering. Soldiers both at home and abroad felt more vulnerable of themselves being scape-goated for the criminal operating procedure of the Whitehouse and the Pentagon. Second Lieutenant William “Rusty” Calley was the highest ranking officer to be charged with responsibility for the My Lai atrocity. It reminded World War 2 veterans and military experts of the controversy surrounding the ‘Yamashita standard’ of the end of the Second World War in which one of the most conscientious of Japan’s generals was hanged by the United States after having been nominally given charge of the Imperial Japanese Army present in the Philippines just as the war was drawing to a close. It was seen to be punishment for having spoken against the use of torture during the war, he was hanged while the Emperor was granted immunity for handing over the results of the scientific experiments carried out in the same torture practices that General Yamashita criticised.
A lieutenant is the lowest rank of officer in the United States Army. The soldiers felt that in the aftermath of the My Lai outrage Lt. Calley was being used as a scape-goat to detract attention from the larger picture of the genocidal warfare being played out from Washington D.C. The Pentagon’s statement on the matter was that My Lai was “an isolated instance of abhorrent behaviour.” It is worth mentioning that it is due to afore mentioned films such as ‘Rambo’ and other glamourous renconstructions of the history of the Vietnam War that we often forget that it was the government who turned their backs on the veterans when they came home and not the people. Artists, civilians and veterans worked together to end the war this film is one of the noblest efforts in getting the truth out about what was really happening in Vietnam at the time.
‘Winterfilm’ had their headquarters in a loft at 405 East 13th Street near Avenue A in Manhattan. The film was edited in the summer of 1971 at the 'Tranquillity Camp' in Peter Stuyvesant Familial Estate in Allamuchy, New Jersey. Working alongside future Academy award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple among others, my father U.S. Marines veteran Joe Bangert was one of the editors. These were editors who inevitably learned each frame by rote, each phrase and utterance as they edited over a hundred of hours of testimony on film into the 95 minute documentary. He told me that one aspect of 'Winter Soldier' that has never been written about was that two of the female editors had miscarriages editing the film in Allamuchy such were the psychological effects of editing this film.
One of the earliest screenings of 'Winter Soldier' was in the uptown Manhattan apartment of then Senator Jacob Javits. David Frost arrived with Zufikar Ali Bhutto, who brought along his daughter Benazir. After the screening Mr. Bhutto said: “What is amazing about this country is that it is possible to see such a wonderfully honest film while this war actually still goes on.”
The film first came to Europe in February 1972 via the Bertrand Russell inspired ‘World Assembly for Peace and Independence of the People of Indochina’ in the Palace of Versailles. This was during the hiatus in negotiations between the Vietnamese and the Americans at all levels. It was a time when the Nixon administration’s control of their citizens’ minds was all but broken. Delegates from more than 80 countries attended. Jean-Paul Sartre was present along with soldiers from both sides of the war. My father attended with George Katsiaficas as part of a delegation from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War including John Kerry. On the train to Versailles a copy of the film was snatched from my father’s bag by someone who quickly disappeared into the crowd; it was found out later to probably have been Philip Agee who at the time worked for the CIA in Paris posing as a leftist in the Liberation New Service though he consequently exposed his own role in the agency with his book ‘Inside the Company’. Luckily there was a second print of the film taken to Paris. The screening went ahead, drawing tears from international eyes and engaging hearts and minds in the negotiation that followed.
On the 30th of April 1975 the Vietnam War finally ended, after a decade long campaign that started off as being very unpopular. For example in October 1965 a demonstration in which Noam Chomsky was going to speak at in Boston Common was broken up by counterdemonstrators, many of them from universities such as Harvard. Chomsky recalls the events: “Not a word could be heard. There were hundreds of state police. For once I wasn't sorry to see them. That day the radio was full of bitter denunciations of the demonstrators who dared to say a critical word about the bombing of North Vietnam --awful, but a sideshow; it was the South that was always the main target, but in those days talking about that was like talking Greek to a speaker of Swahili. The next day the Boston Globe, the supposed paper of the liberal intellectuals, chimed in with its own hysterical condemnations.” His wife Carol Chomsky and their daughters also needed police protection in the very beginnings of the resistance to the war when an angry group of people attacked the women’s meeting they had organised to discuss the war in Concord, Massachusetts. The women and children stood in silent defiance as they were attacked with cans of food.
The Anti Vietnam War Movement ended when the U.S. finally withdrew from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in 1975 but the people and momentum moved on to other campaigns, namely the international Anti-Nuclear struggle which helped bring an end to the insanity of the so called Cold War. In the new political context many of the participants in the film feel that it is no longer about Vietnam. It is now about Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq Veterans Against the War are currently organizing: “Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan” with the support of World War II and Vietnam veterans and also that of intellectuals such as Howard Zinn. This event will take place in Silversprings, Maryland, just outside Washington D.C. from Thursday March 13 to Sunday March 16 this year. It will be the biggest gathering of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans so far, alongside Iraqi and Afghan survivors. Eyewitnesses will share in this public investigation and a film will be made of what comes out.
In the aftermath of ‘Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan’ which will hopefully help pave the way toward an eventual Hague War Tribunal on the Iraq war; some countries will have more to answer for than others. It is saddening that it is now seven years since the Bush and Ahern governments militarised the Mid-West Ireland civilian airport at Shannon. The very leadership of Ireland has wilfully broken the country’s constitution time and time again in that time. Along with Frankfurt, Shannon airport is the single largest gateway open to the U.S. military as they send their troops and armaments to the Middle East, while the CIA smuggle their “extraordinarily rendered” kidnap and torture victims to Guantanamo in the other direction. Seeing as our history is one of a tortured nation ourselves our Irish constitution is a very good one; it is a constitution that guaranteed our neutrality even during the Second World War. It makes us the only European country to have referendums on such issues as the Nice treaty and also soon on the Lisbon Treaty. Yet in the last seven years we have seen our constitutionally guaranteed neutral status and democratic rights effectively been cancelled. We rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001 with no consequence other than being asked to vote again on the exact same treaty in 2002. We reject the use of Shannon, yet it is the an aggressive foreign army that the Irish Armed Forces protect from peaceful Irish citizens in Shannon and not vice versa.
Shannon is within the constituency of our current Defence Minister Willie O’Dea who prior to the 2003 invasion bought shares in an oil company that now operates in Iraq called ‘Petrel’, personally profitted 1200%, breaking the Dáil Éireann Code of Ethics by not declaring a conflict of interests. He also provided this company with seed investment in another venture of theirs ‘West Africa Diamonds’. Africa - where most of our Irish U.N. peacekeeping troops are now stationed – more, including friends of mine who will soon be deployed to try to stop the bloodshed in Chad. We would always like to think that when our soldiers, our friends, our brothers and sisters leave home that it is for the best of reasons. ‘Winter Soldier’ shows us that this is not always the case. That is why it is important for citizens, victims and soldiers to speak out alike.
Efforts to point out the Irish government’s collusion in the illegal war against Iraq have been quite successful, even validated in the Supreme Court. Yet somehow although the accusations that Ireland is breaking International Law have been upheld, the same courts have thus far failed to punish those guilty of these International War Crimes. The problem is that the justice system is itself implicated in this war at this stage, Irish Anti-War activists have consistently had their defences ignored and even been jailed by judges who at least in one instance are personal allies of George Bush, one, Judge McDonagh was even present at the 2001 inauguration and invited again in 2005. I just speak from an Irish point of view but every land has its own tale to tell about these last eight years and it is time to spill the beans on the planners, perpetrators and facilitators.
We are upon the 5th anniversary of the February 15th demonstrations 2003 that gathered millions of people in the largest worldwide protest in human history. At present the real struggle against the war is coming from inside the U.S.A. and the U.S. military. Veterans of the Iraq invasion; the very soldiers, sailors and pilots who are currently stationed in the Middle East who with their own eyes watch the strings being pulled for an attack on Iran. For example the recent sabotage of the underwater communication cables that connect Middle East, South Asia and Africa to the rest of the world and to eachother. These are operations that, according to an article by Richard Sauder , can only have been committed by United States Navy submarines. And let us also keep in mind that the Internet is a stated objective for some military experts in Washington D.C. While just before their last budget the outgoing U.S. administration signed a $22 billion dollar deal to supply weapons to Saudi Arabia. This and the whole backdoor approach of the Bush-Cheney Administration towards an attack on Iran, sucking in Pakistan and the whole region, including both Israel and Palestine, is another simple truth that needs to shouted and stopped right now. It must be shown up, spelled out and denied. Perhaps the best people to do this are those who know about it personally. In very many cases the same men and women who are asked to perform the very deeds that could condemn us all if their human reaction and voice were absent. Such is the importance of these fighting Winter Soldiers, who wrest back the trappings and suits of indignation from the profitting politicians and media who smokescreen the real issues as they send other people’s children to die for a lie. ‘Winter Soldier’ is a call on citizens and patriots of all countries to put our flags aside and stamp out this international treachery, as right now we are being held up in an emergency.
This film is a rescue of the soldier and the civilian. It is a rescue of the morality of a whole society; A rescue of our human selves. ‘Winter Soldier’ is all about standing up and speaking one’s truth without fear of the consequences in a rearguard defence of a society’s soul. It is about the answer being the latter when people in their position ask themselves the question:
“Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?”
Some people now call the Vietnam War the first defeat of the United States of America but others like myself believe that it was the first victory of its kind for American soldiers and their colleagues who were brave enough to speak their truth and state the obvious in a very graphic way that could not be ignored. By naming and opposing the atrocities that they had witnessed and themselves committed, they ended them.
DVD available for purchase with German and French subtitle options.
Winter Soldier is distributed by:
In Ireland and Europe:
Stoney Road Films
In North America:
P.O. Box 128
Harrington Park, N.J. 07640