I saw the documentary film Winter Soldiers on Wednesday night at Strosacker and it was a very moving experience. (The film will be shown again on Sunday at 1:30pm. I strongly recommend it. See below for details.)
In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, more than 125 veterans of the Vietnam war came to a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit and spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. The documentary gives voice to these soldiers as they describe what they had seen and done.
The soldiers recounted story after story of the appalling things that were committed routinely by the soldiers on the Vietnamese. And the brutality was indiscriminate, against old and young and infants, men and women, combatants and civilians. People were pushed out of helicopters, they were raped, they were tortured and killed in cold blood, in ways that sicken you. Entire villages were routinely and systematically destroyed. One person testified that while their truck passed a group of five little children, one child gave made a rude gesture at them. The truck slowed and the soldiers killed all the children in a volley of fire.
The soldiers spoke of a brutal culture that pervaded the entire military. Their superior officers deliberately kept vague as to what the soldiers could and could not do but did not reprimand anyone for anything, even if they witnessed these atrocities. As a result, each soldier soon developed the attitude that all Vietnamese were fair game, that anything could be done to them and there would not be any consequences. And they knew that their superiors knew and approved and even carried out these acts.
The events at My Lai, far from being an aberration by “a few bad apples” (the standard reaction by the Pentagon and official Washington to such revelations) were, in the words of the soldiers, SOP (standard operating procedure).
After the film, there was panel moderated by Mary Reynolds Powell, who served as a nurse in Vietnam and is the author of a memoir A World of Hurt: Between Innocence and Arrogance in Vietnam. The panel had three veterans of Vietnam, now all middle aged men. All of them had served in Vietnam during the same period portrayed in the documentary. They all said that the stories we had just heard were consistent with their own experiences and that this is what happens in war. They said anyone who thinks such acts are aberrations is living in a dream world.
They said that this is what is currently happening in Iraq and the revelations of atrocities like those that occurred at Abu Ghraib in Iraq are things that go on all the time with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the superior officers all the way up the command chain to the very top. They said that whatever its faults, the information chain in the military is highly efficient in both directions, so for the top brass to claim ignorance of what is going on on the ground is to be disingenuous. One recommended the website Veterans Against the Iraq War.
(More photos of Abu Ghraib atrocities were released on Wednesday by an Australian newspaper. The Australian news program Dateline aired a program on it that can be seen here. Some of the photos can be seen here. But be warned that they are very graphic.)
I had expected to be angry at these stories of cruelty, and I was. What I did not expect was to also feel a deep sense of sadness. This was because the young men recounting the horrible things they did and saw could easily have been the students I teach at Case. They were roughly that age and had the same look of youthful innocence. But mixed in with that were fleeting glimpses of haunted looks in their eyes, as if they were wondering “My God, what have I done? What have I become?”
While watching them, I was reminded of the prologue to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, based on his experiences as a young prisoner of war during World War II in Dresden, which was bombed relentlessly by the allied forces causing massive destruction and civilian deaths and was arguably a war crime. “Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometres was totally destroyed, among that: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 18 churches, 5 theatres, 50 bank and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, 62 administration buildings as well as factories such as the Ihagee camera works.”
In preparing background material to write the novel over twenty years after the war’s end, Vonnegut went to visit one of his fellow prisoners-of-war to help recollect incidents from that time. He said that his friend’s wife, whom he had never met before, seemed to be barely concealing her anger at him for reasons that he could not fathom. While he and his friend were sharing war stories, she finally wheeled around and raged at him:
“You were just babies then!. . . You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs. . . But you’re not going to write it that way, are you. . .You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some other of those glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”
However much the media and the film industry might try to gloss over that fact, this is the ugly secret of war, this is what war does. It creates baby killers in both senses of the phrase – those who kill babies, and babies who learn how to kill.
POST SCRIPT: Film Winter Soldier
The Cleveland Museum of Art is screening the film Winter Soldier on Sunday, February 19 at 1:30pm.
The screening is at Strosacker Auditorium on the campus of Case Western Reserve University, since the Museum of Art is closed during its major renovation. Tickets are $7.00 per person general admission, but $5.00 for those associated with Case and (I think) affiliated with some other institutions (ask the ticket seller).
In February 1971, one month after the revelations of the My Lai massacre, a public inquiry into war crimes committed by American forces in Vietnam was held at a Howard Johnson motel in Detroit. Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation with support from Jane Fonda and Mark Lane. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed. “The major that I worked for had a fantastic capability of staking prisoners,” goes one piece of testimony, “utilizing a knife that was extremely sharp, and sort of fileting them like a fish. . . . Prisoners treated this way were executed at the end because there was no way that we could take them into any medical aide and say, ‘This dude fell down some steps.’”
Though the event was attended by press and television news crews almost nothing was reported to the American public. Yet, this unprecedented forum marked a turning point in the anti-war movement. It was a pivotal moment in the lives of young vets from around the country who participated, including the young John Kerry. The Winter Soldier Investigation changed him and his comrades forever. Their courage in testifying, their desire to prevent further atrocities and to regain their own humanity, provide a dramatic intensity that makes the film Winter Soldier an unforgettable experience.