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“The Winter Soldier”, My Lai And Hollywood (Willful?) Amnesia

Did anyone else cringe when she or he saw the subtitle of the new Captain America movie: “The Winter Soldier”. From what I’ve seen floating around, the movie is a deep-dive into violence, warfare and triumphant patriotism (please correct me if I’m wrong), the very impulses and emotions that just mire us in bloody crisis after bloody crisis. And that is the precise opposite of a more recent historic meaning of “The Winter Soldier”.

From January 31, 1971 – February 2, 1971, a group of Vietnam veterans testified at a public event largely organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War about a patterns of war crimes and atrocities committed by the U.S. and its allies against the people of Vietnam. The hearings were dubbed “The Winter Soldier” hearings, essentially paraphrasing Thomas Paine:

In the winter of 1776, almost two hundred years before, Thomas Paine wrote “These are the time that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Seeing themselves as the “winter soldiers” paraphrasing Thomas Paine, whose battle was, in part, to make their experiences common knowledge to the American and world public, the veterans who came, presented their own personal testimony concerning the commonplace atrocities, supported by documentary photographs often of their own taking.

A lot more about this in a moment. I suppose I gasped when I saw the subtitle partly because I recalled the Vietnam-era meaning of the hearings–the opposite of glorifying violence and war–and, in particular, it hit me because just last month, I visited My Lai during a trip to Vietnam.

I’m shocked how many younger people today don’t even know that name–and, truthfully, even younger Vietnamese (meaning twenty-somethings) are, at best, vaguely familiar with what happened there but, certainly, most have never been to My Lai; it’s generally a place you won’t find on most tour stops, certainly not those provided by U.S. tours (you have to find your way there).

In March 1968, American soldiers landed in helicopters in the the village of Sơn Mỹ which was divided into four hamlets: Mỹ Lai, Co Luy, My Khe, and Tư Cung. The soldiers shot, raped and killed 504 villagers, mostly women, children and old men. The memorial site also makes note of the U.S. helicopter pilot who, disgusted by the atrocity, flew a number of the villagers to safety.

Many of the villagers were cut down as they tried to escape on their bicycles or on foot, a terror marked at the memorial by tracks and footprints recreated in cement.

This canal where I stood…

…was not filled with water when this iconic picture was taken, and shocked the world:

The museum at the site remembers the dead

The list of the dead

Here is the complete transcript of those hearings, a transcript that was read into the Congressional Record by Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, who, it’s worth mentioning, was a Republican.

I thought I would just reprint the opening statement of William Crandell:

“Over the border they send us to kill and to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.” These lines of Paul Simon’s recall to Vietnam veterans the causes for which we went to fight in Vietnam and the outrages we were part of because the men who sent us had long ago forgotten the meaning of the words.

We went to preserve the peace and our testimony will show that we have set all of Indochina aflame. We went to defend the Vietnamese people and our testimony will show that we are committing genocide against them. We went to fight for freedom and our testimony will show that we have turned Vietnam into a series of concentration camps.

We went to guarantee the right of self-determination to the people of South Vietnam and our testimony will show that we are forcing a corrupt and dictatorial government upon them. We went to work toward the brotherhood of man and our testimony will show that our strategy and tactics are permeated with racism. We went to protect America and our testimony will show why our country is being torn apart by what we are doing in Vietnam.

In the bleak winter of 1776 when the men who had enlisted in the summer were going home because the way was hard and their enlistments were over, Tom Paine wrote, “Those are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country, but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Like the winter soldiers of 1776 who stayed after they had served their time, we veterans of Vietnam know that America is in grave danger. What threatens our country is not Redcoats or even Reds; it is our crimes that are destroying our national unity by separating those of our countrymen who deplore these acts from those of our countrymen who refuse to examine what is being done in America’s name.

The Winter Soldier Investigation is not a mock trial. There will be no phony indictments; there will be no verdict against Uncle Sam. In these three days, over a hundred Vietnam veterans will present straightforward testimony– direct testimony–about acts which are war crimes under international law. Acts which these men have seen and participated in. Acts which are the inexorable result of national policy. The vets will testify in panels arranged by the combat units in which they fought so that it will be easy to see the policy of each division and thus the larger policy. Each day there will be a special panel during the hours of testimony. Today, a panel on weaponry will explain the use and effects of some of the vicious and illegal weapons used in Vietnam. Tomorrow there will be a panel on prisoners of war composed of returned POWs, parents of a POW, American POW interrogators and vets who served in our own military stockades. Every witness throughout the three days will be available for cross-examination by the press after their initial statements and questioning by their fellow-vets who are acting as moderators.

We had also planned to present a panel of Vietnamese victims of the war who would testify by closed circuit television from Windsor, Canada. Last Wednesday, after we had spent a great deal of time and money arranging to bring these people to Windsor so that they could tell the people of the United States and Canada what we are doing to their country, the Canadian government denied them visas. We need not speculate upon the motives and policies of the Canadian government as our primary concern is with the motives and policies of our own government.

In addition there are two evening panels. Tonight at 7:30 a panel which includes Sid Peck and John Spellman will discuss what we are doing to Vietnam. Tomorrow night at 7:30 two psychiatrists, a lawyer, and three vets will discuss what we are doing to ourselves.

It has often been remarked but seldom remembered that war itself is a crime. Yet a war crime is more and other than war. It is an atrocity beyond the usual barbaric bounds of war. It is legal definition growing out of custom and tradition supported by every civilized nation in the world including our own. It is an act beyond the pale of acceptable actions even in war. Deliberate killing or torturing of prisoners of war is a war crime. Deliberate destruction without military purpose of civilian communities is a war crime. The use of certain arms and armaments and of gas is a war crime. The forcible relocation of population for any purpose is a war crime. All of these crimes have been committed by the U.S. Government over the past ten years in Indochina. An estimated one million South Vietnamese civilians have been killed because of these war crimes. A good portion of the reported 700,000 National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese soldiers killed have died as a result of these war crimes and no one knows how many North Vietnamese civilians, Cambodian civilians, and Laotian civilians have died as a result of these war crimes.

But we intend to tell more. We intend to tell who it was that gave us those orders; that created that policy; that set that standard of war bordering on full and final genocide. We intend to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence, other than, perhaps, the number of victims killed all in one place, all at one time, all by one platoon of us. We intend to show that the policies of Americal Division which inevitably resulted in My Lai were the policies of other Army and Marine Divisions as well. We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lt. William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide. General Westmoreland said in 1966:

I’d like to say that let one fact be clear. As far as the U.S. Military Assistance Command in Vietnam is concerned, one mishap, one innocent civilian killed, one civilian wounded, or one dwelling needlessly destroyed is too many.

By its very nature war is destructive and historically civilians have suffered. But the war in Vietnam is different; it is designed by the insurgents and the aggressors to be fought among the people many of whom are not participants in or closely identified with the struggle. People more than terrain are the objectives in this war and we will not and cannot be callous about those people. We are sensitive to these incidents and want no more of them. If one does occur, mistake or accident, we intend to search it carefully for any lesson that will help us improve our procedures and our controls. We realize we have a great problem and I can assure you we are attacking it aggressively.

We need not judge Westmoreland’s bland assurances nor need we pass responsibility for these crimes. You who hear or read our testimony will be able to conclude for yourselves who is responsible.

We are here to bear witness not against America, but against those policy makers who are perverting America. We echo Mark Twain’s indictment of the war crimes committed during the Philippine insurrection:

We have invited our clean young men to soldier a discredited musket and do bandit’s work under a flag which bandits have been accustomed to fear not to follow. We cannot conceal from ourselves that privately we are a little troubled about our uniform. It is one of our prides: it is acquainted with honor; it is familiar with great deeds and noble. We love it; we revere it. And so this errand it is on makes us uneasy. And our flag, another pride of ours, the chiefest. We have worshipped it so and when we have seen it in far lands, glimpsing it unexpectedly in that strange sky, waving its welcome and benediction to us, we have caught our breaths and uncovered our heads for a moment for the thought of what it was to us and the great ideals it stood for. Indeed, we must do something about these things. It is easily managed. We can have just our usual flag with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and crossbones. We are ready to let the testimony say it all.

More recently, the Vietnam era hearings inspired a similar look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan:

In the spring of 2008, inspired by the Vietnam-era Winter Soldier hearings, Iraq Veterans Against the War gathered outside Washington, D.C., and testified to atrocities they personally committed or witnessed while deployed in the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. In this book are the powerful words, images, and documents of this historic event.

The collective testimony of the dozens of veterans present at the hearings showed that well-publicized cases of American brutality like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal are not isolated incidents perpetrated by “a few bad apples,” as many politicians and military leaders have claimed. As the testimony shows, such injustices are the logical outcome of U.S. foreign policy. Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan preserves and honors the participants’ courageous contributions in order to ensure that people around the world remember their stories and struggles.[emphasis added]

My guess is that the filmmakers, the producers and the p.r. mavens did not set out to undercut meaning of “The Winter Soldier”. Worse: they were probably completely unaware of what it means.

Which is probably just as sad.

My Lai is just a symbol of war. There are countless massacres and atrocities that are never spoken about and are even bigger in the strict human toll.

But, the power of “The Winter Soldier” hearings was that those men (who were subjected to broad attempts, never successful, to discredit the evidence and testimony) essentially wanted to say: this is what war does to human beings, what war can make people do.

Remember.

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