Operation Eagle Pull lifted the last Americans off the roof of the American Embassy in Vietnam seven years before I was born. As soon as I could comprehend combat, Vietnam interested me more than any other American operation. I read The Things They Carried. I saw Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. In high school I fancied myself a peacenik and made a cheesy anti-war video for my video production class, complete with gory newsreels set to John Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” None of this training prepared me in the least for Winter Soldier, the new documentary opening at E Street Cinema this Friday, which chronicles the Winter Soldier Investigation conducted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971.
Winter Soldier is the most real look I have had at the Vietnam War. It’s not the horror-story confessions of atrocities witnessed and committed that got me, though the film overflows with those. It’s the variety of voices, experiences and interpretations that fascinated me. The footage of the Winter Soldier Investigation, held in the ballroom of a Howard Johnson in Detroit, has all the attributes of an Alcoholics Anonymous convention: everyone is there for the same reason, and everyone has a different story to tell. Some members in attendance are trying to help, and some are out to get what they can. Some are just plain crazy, like the man in the film who claims that VVAW is racist & segregationist, while the table of panelists seats White, Black, Native American and Asian veterans together, passing the microphone to hear each other out.
Where the film lacks is in it’s billing. The tagline reads “Winter Soldier: They risked everything to tell the truth.” That risk simply isn’t apparent anywhere in the documentary. What is apparent is a crowd of young men in a motor lodge. Some are angry, some are confused, and some are at peace with the things they did in Vietnam. Don’t expect Winter Soldier to inspire the same revolutionary passion as 2002’s The Weather Underground. Instead, regard each speaker as a portrait of the war and it’s varied effect on any given man. While I believe Winter Soldier was intended as a war cry, in light of the recent abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, it is more effectively a human cry, calling us to observe the way war can warp and devolve our basic beliefs about humankind.