If GIs commit atrocities in wartime, America does not want to hear about it. It's happening now in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo—the entire interrogation gulag devised by Bush, Alberto "Torture Boy" Gonzales, et al. And it happened after Vietnam's My Lai massacre. In an attempt to draw attention to the scale of the moral calamity, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War held hearings for atrocity witnesses and penitent perpetrators in a Detroit Howard Johnson's in 1971. The stark black-and-white documentary of the event, made by 19 filmmakers including Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.), was barely released in 1972. Few reported on it, and audiences were sparse; people preferred movies that processed our sense of epochal Vietnam disillusionment in a kind of code, or cut with retro nostalgia: Cabaret, The Godfather, The Candidate.
The Winter Soldier episode essentially vanished until the last presidential campaign, when the right wing used it as part of its successful slime campaign against John Kerry, who was catapulted from Viet vet to politician by the controversy. Viewed today, it's a numbing litany of Boschian horrors narrated by Viet-vets-turned- hippies. One chopper pilot recalls being told not to "count prisoners when you're loading them on the aircraft, count them when you're unloading them . . . the numbers may not jibe." Others ramble on about gang-raping women with entrenching tools, collecting ears, bombing civilian villages for fun, torching homes, and shooting anyone who fled. They claim authorities openly promulgated such policies. Unsettlingly, some of them smile sardonically while confessing these self-alleged crimes.
For the most part, this endless, gruesome testimony is uncorroborated. There is no attempt to put anything in any precise context, and we get zero sense of who these guys are and where they're coming from. To this often-lied-to reporter, some of it sounds dubious or exaggerated. If everybody, including the top officers, had an attitude of what-me-worry-about- My-Lai?, then why did the Pentagon so urgently try to cover up that actual and well-documented atrocity? These stories are so lurid, you'd have to be Judith Miller to swallow them whole. You don't have to be a Swift Boater to have doubts.
If even a fraction of them are true, however, it's astounding that it took so long to get the testimony out. That's why it's so tragic that Winter Soldier is such a suck-ass bad film in technical and aesthetic terms. The talking heads natter on like Beckett heroes buried to the neck in trash cans. A long, tedious, and hackneyed debate on race between white Viet vets and a black political-jive artist is allowed to waste our time in real time. I can't remember a longer-seeming 96-minute film.
Now that torture and Sovietesque secrecy are official U.S. policy, we desperately need smart, dogged documentarians to drag the truth to light and corrupt officials to justice. Winter Soldier is an example of how not to do it. (NR)