It’s a surefire bet for frustrated liberal nostalgia. A 1972 war protest film is playing at an artsy theater just blocks from the White House. And not just any antiwar film. It’s Winter Soldier, documenting the Winter Soldier Investigation, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War event on which Sen. John Kerry based his infamous 1971 Senate testimony. Winter Soldier is a parade of vets “testifying” about war atrocities — rapes, disembowelments, butchering, indiscriminate killing, and other savagery — that they allegedly witnessed in Vietnam.
Though awful stuff, it’s still an antiwar propaganda piece, the contents of which are widely disputed and otherwise known. TAS attended Sunday night not to see the film, but for the advertised post-film panel discussion. The scene was predictable. Like a college “teach-in,” the film would display one point of view, then the “experts” would convene, earnestly cluck their tongues about modern failures to learn from the past, practice a little group-think with the audience, and congratulate themselves on their moral superiority. It did not disappoint.
Alleged atrocities by American soldiers in Vietnam formed the backdrop for a condemnation of war generally and the war in Iraq specifically. And in this regard the panel was dutifully uniform: Dr. Arthur Blank Jr., a psychoanalyst/psychiatrist who saw 400-plus soldier-patients in Vietnam; Paul Kawika Martin, a D.C.-area professional peace activist; and Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and occasional assistant to Harry Belafonte.
Like the investigation depicted, the purpose of showing Winter Soldier wasn’t actually to investigate and prosecute war crimes. It was to show that atrocities are commonplace, part and parcel with war per se. In this telling, war criminals are victims of war, morally equivalent to everyone involved: civilian leaders, military leaders, our troops, and enemy troops.
Activist Martin kicked off his remarks saying that the film “touches me and my work” as a “consideration of what the true costs of war are.” Martin then summed up those costs in Iraq in terms of bodies: over 2,100 U.S. “casualties” (sic), hundreds of coalition partners killed, 2,000 dead Iraqi soldiers, and over 15,000 U.S. soldiers wounded. Martin did not say how many civilians Saddam Hussein killed during his reign.
All wars being equal, attendees hoped that Winter Soldier catalyzes an American retreat from Iraq. “If the Swift Boat attacks during the presidential campaign were a grenade in the culture wars,” Sanho Tree said, “this is the H-bomb because I think it’s really going to blow open discussion about the nature of our wars. I think it will make us confront this myth of American exceptionalism, that somehow we’re the good guys and we’re unique. I think a lot of people are going to ask, ‘How is it possible that American boys can commit these kinds of atrocities?’ I don’t think it’s that unusual, actually.”
Q&A from the audience made the panel seem moderate. The first commenter thought the panelists and the documentary are too soft on our soldiers in Vietnam and Iraq. “Several million Vietnamese killed in the Vietnam War, at least one hundred thousand Iraqis killed in the current war. And I hear these soldiers talking a great deal about their experience, their suffering, their pain….But they’re telling us about the atrocities they committed. They’re telling us that our conduct in the war was criminal. And I hear people coming from Iraq today telling us the same thing that they did…to the people of Iraq…. So I don’t see why the three of you are focusing so much only on the soldiers, and feeling sorry for them, and being supportive of them…. I think maybe we focus on a guilt trip and saying, ‘Americans are bad because we did this in Vietnam, we’re bad because we’re doing this in Iraq.’ No. Germans did it too. Russians did it too. This is what happens in war.” The gentleman was neither rebuked nor challenged.
The discussion led to some creative peace initiatives when a young Freudian asked, “What is it about our culture that allows, promotes this kind of militarization of the psyche?” Dr. Blank’s diagnosis was, “Not enough women running governments.” Tree said gays are also under-represented.
Some attendees tried to rally the old gang for another fight, to little success. An aging Students for a Democratic Society activist offered the wisdom of the '60s peace movement: “What are we doing? What can we do?” he asked. “I don’t know the answer to that. People are trying, but people also don’t want to spin our wheels.” Another erstwhile activist wondered where the Vietnam Veterans Against the War are in the current struggle. “You guys! It’s time to do it again,” she pleaded, “And I’ll help.” Her rallying cry elicited no noticeable response from the handful or so left in the theater.
But Blank’s been there as an early VVAW member. He knows how this ends. “I thought that the millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of person hours that we put into helping people who served in Vietnam and were troubled would make a major contribution to preventing anything like it from ever happening again….It turns out I was altogether wrong about that,” Blank admitted.
The first commenter also doubted Winter Soldier would change anything. “You said this film is going to be a bombshell,” he told Tree. “I’m very skeptical of that. I don’t think many people are going to see this film.”
Contacted by TAS, the film’s distributor attempted to dispel this notion. “It’s playing everywhere around the country,” said Dennis Doros, an owner of Millarium Zero. “The attendance, however, to see a grim view of reality, is not as great as it could be. Whether people want to see reality or not is always a debate for the history of cinema.” So how many have seen it? Doros said the company does not watch its film’s gross receipts, but would say it has played in 75 theaters since Veterans Day with 50 more to come. At that rate, success may be another 33 years off.
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