Friday, June 05, 2009

Winter Soldier (1972)

                                                  "original courage is good,
                                                  motivation be damned,
                                                  and if you say they are trained
                                                  to feel no pain,
                                                  are they
                                                  guaranteed this?
                                                  is it still not possible
                                                  to die for somebody else?

                                                  you sophisticates
                                                  who lay back and
                                                  make statements of explanation,
                                                  I have seen the red rose burning
                                                  and this means more."

on the fire suicides of the buddhists
by Charles Bukowski

* * *

The documentary Winter Soldier shows how institutionalized modes of thought and circumstance turned many young men into mass murderers in Vietnam, resulting in a war where the massacre, rape, and mutilation of civilians was often the rule rather than the exception.

Although the main focus is on the testimony given by American soldiers concerning the actual atrocities committed in Vietnam, between the testimony Winter Soldier gives us a glimpse of how social and cultural forces help set the stage for larger atrocities to take place.

"'The type of boy we aim at turning out,' the Head used to say to impressed parents, 'is a thoroughly manly fellow. We prepare for the universities of course, but our pride is in our excellent Sports Record. There is an O.T.C., organised by Sergeant-Major Brown...
     On such occasions he invariably quoted those stirring and indeed immortal lines of Rudyard Kipling which end up, 'You'll be a man, my son.' It is so important to know how to kill. Indeed, unless you know how to kill you cannot possibly be a Man, still less a Gentleman." --Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero (1929)

"An apathy settled in. I withered. I learned nothing. I did nothing. I was kicked, hounded, caned, flogged, hairbrushed, morning, noon and night. The more I suffered, the less I cared. The longer I stayed, the harder I grew." --Death of a Hero

American soldiers were taught to view the Vietnamese as less than human. The seeds of this objectification are found in the smaller, unspoken offenses that take place in our everyday lives when we push people away, ignore them, discredit them, and dislike them simply because of the assumptions we make about who they are.

On the surface the two men above appear to be examples of people who have learned a great deal from their experiences, but I wonder if this is true. In Vietnam, they went along. The moral code was altered and they were altered along with it. There was no sense of self holding them to anything they had previously known. After returning home to a place where what they did as soldiers was seen as unacceptable and horrible, they too found their actions unacceptable and horrible. Again, they went along. I wonder if this is real change we see in them or just another example of their malleability to surrounding social and cultural norms.

And just as the soldiers went along with (and participated in) the destructive behavior that was encouraged by the dominant culture that surrounded them, so too have we:


Hectocotylus said...

Like the Winter Soldier event of 2008 (where soldiers gave accounts of atrocities committed in Iraq and Afghanistan), the original Winter Soldier Investigation was largely ignored by the mainstream media. The 1971 event was documented by the Winterfilm Collective and released as a film in 1972, playing sporadically in art-house theaters over the next 30 years. In 2005 there was a theatrical re-release, and in 2006, Winter Soldier finally made its way to DVD.

(The DVD is now out of print, but you can still purchase a copy at the films website.)

Hectocotylus said...

Or rent it from Netflix.