In the winter of 1971, a few months before Lieutenant William Calley would be sentenced to life in prison for the My Lai Massacre that claimed the lives of many innocent Vietnamese civilians—he was pardoned by Nixon in 1974 and served less than four years of his sentence—a group of 125 veterans (including a young John Kerry) and 16 civilians responded to a public call by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) to assemble for a conference over the course of four days and nights between January 31 and February 2 at a Howard Johnson hotel in Detroit, Michigan, to testify in public hearings about the horrors and atrocities they had either witnessed firsthand or committed while stationed in Vietnam.
The point of the public hearings at this conference was to use the veterans’ testimonies to shed light on the fact that what happened at My Lai was not the only place or time during the war where such massacres occurred. The conference, known as “The Winter Solider Investigation,” took its name from 18th century political theorist and writer Thomas Paine’s first Crisis Paper: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summertime soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Vietnam veterans from every branch of the U.S. Military with family members in tow courageously came forward in public to share their eye-witness accounts and confess the crimes they committed. And to ensure that their testimony was truthful, each veteran and civilian was verified by their name, rank, unit number and discharge papers. They wanted to be there to share their story—not debate with the media or the public whether or not their stories were true. As a result, Pentagon investigators at the public hearings were later unable to refute the eye witness accounts because of the corroborations of the veterans’ stories.
All of the veterans’ testimonies, while genuine, also detailed very graphic and shocking accounts related to the destruction of entire villages; the tortures, rapes, disembowelments and beheadings; the collection of enemy ears for beer; the electrocution and murder of Vietnamese civilians and prisoners. And while print and television journalists were invited to attend the hearings and report on them to the American public, most either left the hearings early or did not even bother to show up.
Yet the veterans who participated viewed these public hearings as a chance to speak out against the Vietnam War and confess to the crimes they committed against other innocent human beings, for the sake of their country. And in response to the investigation’s historical importance, an incredible collective of filmmakers (including the future Academy Award-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple) came together to document, capture and preserve the veterans’ testimonies that became the 95-minute film “Winter Soldier.”
Shot in grainy black-and-white film on 16mm reels, and intermixed with color snapshots and 8 mm home movies, “Winter Soldier” is a firsthand account as well as a testament to what hundreds of Vietnam veterans endured as American soldiers in Vietnam—how their military training prepared them for the acts of violence they committed.
Most of the men in the film display the long hair and beards of their ‘70s counterculture, in stark contrast to their former, clean-cut military selves. Where some break down in tears of humiliation when recounting their experiences, others are forthright as they recall the details of what they witnessed. One of the common themes throughout most of the soldiers’ testimonies in “Winter Soldier” is that their behavior was often condoned and encouraged by their superior officers—almost expected of them in a sense.
Sitting before microphones at long tables, press-conference style, each veteran speaks candidly in detail about what they either witnessed or experienced while on duty in Vietnam. Their hope was to speak directly to the American public, sharing their experiences to bring an early end to the Vietnam War.
One of the men featured in “Winter Soldier” is Rusty Sachs, who entered the Marine Corps in 1964 after working as a news broadcaster for a network radio station. He recounts his experiences with the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 as a medivac pilot from 1966–1967. Confident and outgoing, Sachs explains, “You don’t count prisoners when they get loaded on the chopper, but only when they get unloaded, because the numbers may not jibe.”
Another man, Kenneth Campbell, a Temple University student at the time of filming, was a corporal in the Marine Corps who was an FO, or Forward Artillery Scout Observer. His testimony in “Winter Soldier” consists of eyewitness accounts of the mistreatment of prisoners and the mutilation of bodies, the calling in of artillery on undefended villages and use of harassment and interdiction fire.
One of the most unforgettable faces in the film is that of former U.S. Marine Sergeant Scott Camil, also one of the founding members of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Now a 59-year-old father of three daughters, Camil is an active member of several anti-war organizations: the Veterans Call to Conscience, Community Coalition Against War and Terrorism, and the Veterans for Peace.
Camil is featured throughout “Winter Soldier” for his charismatic personality and vivid accounts of his Vietnam experience. Twenty-four years old at the time of filming, Camil talks throughout the film about what he did as a U.S. Marine Forward Artillery Scout Observer in Vietnam for 20 months. “‘If I had to go into a village and kill 150 people just to make sure there was no one there to kill me when we walked out, that’s what I did.”
His testimony in “Winter Soldier” revolves around the burning of villages with civilians in them; decapitations and prisoner torture; napalm being dropped on villages; women being raped; women and children being massacred; and tear-gassing civilians for fun.
What finally turned Camil around when he returned from Vietnam was hearing Jane Fonda speak at the University of Florida. She said the way to get democracy to work was to share the truth with the American public when the government wouldn’t. After the Winter Solider Investigation, he put all of his energy into the anti-war movement and the events that he continues to be involved in to this day.
Thirty-four years later, released by Milestone Pictures, “Winter Soldier” is the only surviving audio-visual record of a turning point in American history. ||
“Winter Soldier” shows Tue., Jan. 17 at 7 p.m. $4–$10 (sliding scale) at the Bryant Lake Bowl located at 810 W. Lake St., Mpls. 612-825-3737. For more information on the film, visit the official website at WinterSoldierFilm.com.
See also “An Interview with Scott Camil of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.”