Thursday, January 31, 2013
Winter Soldier (1972)
“I felt whatever was in the best interest of my country was what was best, and that’s how I was raised to believe.”
“If they’re running, they’re VC. If they’re standing still, they’re well-disciplined VC. Shoot ‘em anyhow.”
“And sometimes when I talk about it, you know, I laugh all the time, you know, because I don’t want people to think that I’m not a man; and it’s kind of uh—the way I’ve been brought up; again, you know, you’re supposed to be a man and men are hard and they don’t have feelings and stuff.”
-Vietnam Vets featured in Winter Soldier
It’s rather appropriate that I’m reviewing the Vietnam documentary Winter Soldier, the same week as the gung ho action picture Cyborg—not that Cyborg, specifically, acts as a companion piece to this document of the Winter Soldier Investigations; but the Van Damme movie was part of a larger trend toward national amnesia in the eighties, reversing the artistic strides made in the New Hollywood of the sixties and seventies. The experimental, revisionist Westerns and war films of the sixties and seventies sought to upend the traditional American cinematic ideal: heroic Americans with God on their side civilizing the savage others—whether they be foreigners or Native Americans.
Eighties films, on the other hand, wanted to reassure us, “Everything’s jimdandy: we’re the good guys again; the Other sucks. The Other isn’t human. Everything is black and white. No moral complexity up in this bitch.” In essence, these movies were saying, the real crime of the Vietnam era was that our country lost its pride. If we could just go back to the good old days where we were the good guys, everything would be fine again.
It’s telling, however, that even at the height of the counter-culture, the documentary Winter Soldier was so incendiary, so problematic to the status quo, that it was effectively buried after its release in 1972. Consisting solely of the oral history—as well as a few heart-rending photos of atrocities—of disaffected Vietnam Vets, Winter Soldier chronicles some of the most gut-wrenching atrocities committed by American soldiers during the war.
Reading some of the Netflix comments on this movie, I found quite a few people condemning this film as anti-American, stating that the Viet-Cong committed crimes just as brutal as those recounted in Winter Soldier. I don’t doubt this; but these critics seem to be missing the point: because of the nature of this documentary, yes, it focuses solely on the crimes committed in the name of America; but it also acts as an indictment of war generally, regardless of the nations involved.
What Winter Soldier really shows is the dehumanizing effect that war and jingoism can have on any individual. A Winter Soldier film could be made about any war, featuring the combatants from any country. When every citizen is ingrained with the belief that God is on the side of his country, that the enemies are not real people; and then thrust into a kill-or-be-killed scenario, is it any wonder that these crimes happen?