A rare but hugely influential film which helped to end the Vietnam War will be screened this Friday February 1st (7.10pm) Saturday February 2nd (2.30pm) and Sunday February 3rd (3.10pm) at the Irish Film Institute in Temple Bar, Dublin.
Its title, Winter Soldier, is a nod to US founding father Thomas Paine’s lines:
“These 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.”
In 1776 the American Continental Army wintered at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania during the American Revolutionary War. A time of great suffering for George Washington’s army, it was also a time of rejuvenation. The fighters at Valley Forge were battling hunger, frostbite, and homesickness; many deserted. In a mood of desperation, Washington called in the best of the revolution’s writers – Paine – to raise spirits. Those lines were some of what he produced.
Based on the Nuremburg Principles and with the guidance of Nuremburg Military Trial judge General Telford Taylor, Vietnam Veterans Against the War organised the Winter Soldier Investigation at the Howard Johnson Hotel in Detroit, Michigan during the weekend of the 31st of January, 1971.
This film was the end product of hundreds of hours of footage filmed during that investigation, when over 125 veterans came from all over the country as if attending an act of collective confession.
This was only one month after the My Lai massacre became public. The military draft had just ended, and with it ended the large-scale student opposition to the war which up to that point had been growing steadily for a decade (though of course the broad societal rejection of the war was still smouldering).
Second Lt. Rusty Calley had been the only US officer charged for the My Lai atrocity after it finally became public knowledge, a reminder of the controversy around the “Yamashita standard” of the end of the Second World War when a Japanese Navy Admiral was held responsible for the actions of his generals, and hanged.
A lieutenant is the lowest rank of officer in the United States Army; the soldiers felt that Lt. Calley was being used to deflect attention from the genocidal warfare being pushed by their Washington-based commanders.
The Winterfilm collective had their headquarters in a loft at 405 East 13th Street near Avenue A in Manhattan, and the film was edited in the summer of 1971 at the so-called “Tranquillity Camp” at the Peter Stuyvesant Familial Estate in Allamuchy, New Jersey. Working alongside future Academy Award-winning documentary-maker Barbara Kopple, my father – former US Marine Sgt. Joseph Vincent Bangert – was one of many interviewees and editors of the film.
He later told me that two of the female editors had miscarriages at Allamuchy, such were the psychological effects of condensing 100 hours of testimony into a 95-minute documentary. Among those who came to see the film’s first screenings in New York were David Frost and a young Benazir Bhutto, who was studying in the US at the time.
Winter Soldier first came to Europe via the Paris Peace Accords – at the Palace of Versailles – during a hiatus in negotiations between the Vietnamese and the Americans. It was a time when the cynical, war-mongering Nixon administration became untied and started losing its grip on the control of its citizens’ minds.
Delegates from more than 80 countries attended. Jean-Paul Sartre was present, along with soldiers from both sides. My father went with philosopher George Katsiaficas, future US Secretary of State John Kerry and others from Vietnam Veteran’s Against the War.
On the train to Versailles a copy of the film was snatched from my father’s bag by a stranger who quickly disappeared into the crowd. The thief was later alleged to have been Philip Agee, who at the time worked for the CIA in Paris posing as a leftist at the Liberation New Service. Luckily, there was a second print of the film and the screening went ahead.
One of the chief collaborators on the project was the aforementioned Kerry, the man who on April 23rd, 1971 gave testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, marking a move in the establishment consensus towards ending the war.
On the 30th of April 1975 the Vietnam War finally ended, after a decade-long campaign which began under constant attack. People now call the Vietnam War the first defeat of the United States of America, but I would rather call it the first victory of its kind for American soldiers and their colleagues who were brave enough to speak their truth. By naming and opposing the atrocities that they had witnessed and themselves committed, they ended them.
The Anti Vietnam War Movement ultimately gave momentum to other campaigns, namely the international anti-nuclear struggle which helped bring an end to the insanity of the Cold War.
I would argue that since 2003 this film is no longer about Vietnam, but has become more relevant to America’s newer “theatres of war”. In March of 2008 the Iraq Veterans Against the War took it as their inspiration for their own Winter Soldier Investigation at Silver Springs, Virginia, again helping to crystallise the issues of inspiring a soldier-led end to mindless conflicts.
This film is also relevant to those in Ireland who distance themselves from the causes and effects of the War on Terror. I am referring of course to successive Irish governments which have wilfully trashed the country’s constitutional commitment to neutrality as well as endangered the travelling and working public by militarising Shannon Airport.
The fact is that by allowing our infrastructure to be used in the invasions and occupations of the past decade, we went bankrupt morally long before we did so financially. Winter Soldier makes for highly relevant viewing here in Dublin as we realise that after hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan deaths, Irish citizens through our inaction – just like US soldiers through their action – have an obligation to at least admit to the terror we helped to unleash.
This film is about individuals from every walk of life – each with their own personal reasons – who take the time to think, travel, write, argue and discuss the reality of unjust wars in an attempt to end them. It is about the right of each person to have their voice heard, particularly if they have been asked to kill or be killed, for any reason.
These are the voices, the consciences, the prayers and the tears of soldiers who were asked to go beyond their call of duty – men and women who personally paid the price in a racist testing ground for the military-industrial complex.
Winter Soldier is all about standing up and speaking your truth without fear of the consequences, something we need a lot more of in Ireland right now.
Fiachra Ó Luain
Peace and Neutrality Alliance (PANA) National Executive member