what i'm watching: winter soldier, and how you can prevent war crimes

After our Winter Soldier event this week, Allan and I borrowed the movie of the first Winter Soldier - the original event from 1971 - and watched it last night, on a Red Sox night off. I didn't realize it was available on DVD, and I think I'll buy it now.

It's not easy an easy film to watch. The testimony is brutal, and unceasing, and graphic. There is some actual footage from Vietnam, but mercifully not much. Most of it is the veterans' words and your own imagination, and that is bad enough.

It reminded me of when I was a child in Hebrew school, which, like most American Jewish kids, I attended after school a couple of days a week. One week they showed us films on the Holocaust. I already knew what the Holocaust was, but two hours of graphic pictures and testimony was a different story. I was maybe 9 years old. I came home and threw up, then had nightmares for weeks.

Winter Soldier has the same effect.

It's like listening to what the Nazis did, what Stalin did, what the Khmer Rouge did, what Saddam Hussein did - Argentina, Bosnia, Japan, China - wherever, whoever. The US has plenty of company in the war crimes department, but its mighty global reach gives it a special advantage when it comes to this destruction, and its cover up.

Most Americans - not all, by any means - don't know, don't believe, don't want to believe their country has perpetrated these kinds of atrocities. But a mere 35 years ago, the US government put its citizens to work indiscriminately torturing, maiming, raping, and killing innocent people, along with the total destruction of their homes and everything they owned.

And of course it is happening again, right now.

Winter Soldier is not easy to watch and listen to. Murder, torture, poison gas, chemical weapons, people thrown alive from helicopters, mass rape, dismemberment, disembowelment, the burning of village after village after village.

No distinction made between civilian and combatants.

Competitions to see who could kill the most. Gang rapes as "standard operating procedure". Rewards, such as a three-day-pass, for killing.

"I killed three VC." "How did you know they were Viet Cong?" "Because they were dead."

Don't count the people who board the helicopters. Count the ones who get off, because the numbers won't match.

* * * *

I thought the men who testified were unbelievably brave for doing so. I hope speaking out helped ease their own pain, if only a little, and perhaps set their course for healing. Truth-telling is the only path to healing. Only by facing the horrors of the past, whatever they are, can we liberate ourselves from its grip.

I wondered how Winter Soldier was born. How did these men come together and decide to do this? That's something I'd like to learn more about. Was there any precedent? Were they guided by any psychological insights, or only their good instincts and wounded consciences, compelling them to come forward? How, in all the centuries and millennia of war and war crimes, did these men, in this time and place, break the silence, tell the truth, find their humanity?

I think the counterculture of those times must have helped them find the strength to do it. It could never have happened in, say, the 1950s after World War II, and not just because of the perceived difference between the two wars. The counterculture - insisting on challenging authority, questioning conformity, seeking love instead of hate - gave them the safe space to begin.

I wondered if the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings in South Africa - which also fascinated - used Winter Soldier as a partial model.

One soldier compares his tour in Vietnam to a hunting trip with no limits. Whoever kills the most wins.

One soldier speaks of "the horror of the every day", as he recalls how his unit stoned to death a small child. Only weeks later did he remember the incident. He says, "I never thought my mind would hide things from me." So I learn that the minds of perpetrators repress memories, too, just like the minds of victims. It shows how both victim and perpetrator are damaged, how every perpetrator is also victimizing himself.

One soldier says, "My commanding officer told me the long-haired hippies would condemn me and hate me. But while I was over there, I got a letter from a girl. She told me about a place called Woodstock, where 500,000 people came together in love. I think it was the only time I truly smiled the whole time I was in Nam."

It's easy to caricature the '60s and '70s counter-culture. But it's easier to be sympathetic when you remember what people were reacting against. Like Elvis Costello says, what's so funny about...

One soldier says, "I'm ashamed. Don't let them do this to you. Don't ever let your government do this to you."

* * * *

I know there is individual responsibility, and I know how important it is. And yet... I'm not comfortable blaming individual soldiers for war crimes. I can't demonize these men, or even hold them, at bottom, responsible. Everyone had been brainwashed, dehumanized, turned into a killing machine. Everyone was motivated by fear. Everyone believed that every "gook" was out to get them and kill them, so they had to kill them first.

I'm not exonerating the soldiers, but real responsibility has to roll up. Up the chain of command, all the way to the top. Hitler had his willing executioners, but it's Hitler we remember. As we should remember Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al, in the same way.

* * * *

Looking at history, it's clear that most humans succumb to the mass insanity that overtakes aggressors in wartime. Defying its raw power is nearly impossible, maybe too much to ask of any mortal. Perhaps the only thing you can do is refuse to be in the situation in the first place.

You would have to refuse to fight. Which many did.

Do you see, Canada, why you must take in the Iraq War resisters? These are people who have refused to let their government do this to them. By accepting the war resisters, you are standing up for peace. You are preventing war crimes.

So, one more time folks: if you haven't contacted your MP about this, now is the time. Details here, or here, or here, or please feel free to email me for details. Right now we need letters to St├ęphane Dion, and to your own MP, especially if he or she is a Liberal.

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