Friday, September 16, 2005
A Firsthand Report (Unedited, Uncut) from the NYC "Re-Premiere" of the film Winter Soldier
by Nancy Miller Saunders
When VetSpeak spokesman Bill (Willie) Hager and I, along with speakers bureau members Terry DuBose, Alex Primm, and author Gerald Nicosia, confronted a Swift Vet crew of propagandists at Texas Tech’s 5th Triennial Vietnam Symposium in March, we came back together after decades of not seeing each other. It felt as if our reunion was meant to be, as if we were going with a flow that drew us together and gave us strength. I felt that flow again on August 12 at the sold-out “re-premier” of the film Winter Soldier, which I helped make 34 years ago.
Winter Soldier is that much-maligned documentary film of the Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI) conducted in the winter of 1971 by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). For three days, Vietnam veterans, all with verified military backgrounds, presented direct testimony about acts that occurred in Vietnam. Many of these acts were considered war crimes under international law, and the veterans testified that these crimes were SOP (Standard Operating Procedure)--accepted, condoned, and at times ordered by commanding officers and hidden from the news media. The vets’ revelations were a serious embarrassment for the United States. Consequently Winter Soldier, the WSI, and VVAW were bitterly condemned, and the film faded into documentary-film oblivion. Until last year.
The Swift Boat Veterans for (what they erroneously call) Truth (SBV) revived it as a weapon to use against Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry, who had been a leader of VVAW and appears in Winter Soldier. All over the media, the SBV charged that the WSI was a phony investigation in which anyone could just show up and relate wild fantasies to discredit all Vietnam veterans. No self-respecting soldier or Marine, the SBV ranted, would set up or participate in such a fraud.
How do I know theses accusations are false? Because I was there. I helped film the WSI.
I know because my official title on the project was what was then called a "script girl." (You should have heard my father explode, "A WHAT girl?" when I told him.) With only two short breaks, I sat through the entire three days of testimony. I personally took notes on each panel, about who said what, at what time, and with descriptive details about each vet, so that we could synchronize the audio tape and silent 16-mm film we took home with us to edit into the film, Winter Soldier.
I know that the SBV’s accusations of fraud are wrong because, during my off-duty moments, I held sobbing vets and listened to them confide even more horror stories. They reminded me of rusty faucets that, once broken open, could not be shut off.
I know, contrary to what the SBV would have you believe, that VVAW was denouncing United States military policies in Southeast Asia, not the troops in the bush. I personally heard vets say this in a multitude of different ways. For example, they wanted to avoid creating government scapegoats like Lt. William Calley (who at the time was being court-martialed for the My Lai massacre), so they frequently reminded those of us transcribing the testimony to omit the names of veterans who were not present at the WSI. The official government story about My Lai was that the massacre was an aberration. Not so, said the veterans testifying in front of our cameras. Vet after vet testified that war crimes, like the that massacre, were United States military policy, SOP.
I know on an instinctive level that what I heard at the WSI was true (as well as each vet could recall), because we—filmmakers and veterans—were together then. We were held together by the strength that comes of being united in doing what needs to be done, no matter how painful and no matter what repercussions we might face. It was the strength we shared again at the film’s “re-premiere” and that I felt when we came together at the TTU symposium last March.
I know that the WSI testimonies were true because, thanks to the Hot Springs (Arkansas) Documentary Film Festival asking me for permission to show Winter Soldier at their 2003 festival, I have seen it several times in the past two years. Seeing and remembering the pain in the faces of those young men as they recalled events they wanted only to forget, made the truth of their testimonies all too clear.
And I know that Winter Soldier is true because of the effect I have seen it have on those who see it, like a doctor with the Veterans Administration. He is now a better doctor to his patients because, having seen Winter Soldier, he has a clearer idea of their needs.
New York City, August 12, 2005
I almost didn't make it to the Winter Soldier “re-premiere. I knew the film was being re-released, but no one contacted me with the details. Maybe other members of Winterfilm (the collective we formed to make the film) were trying to divorce themselves from me because I chewed them out during last year's campaigns. When former VVAW leader John Kerry ran for president, while the United States was embroiled in another political war based on lies, I wanted everyone to see the Winter Soldier. I wanted to remind people of the toll taken on our sons and daughters, sisters and brothers whom we send to fight unnecessary wars for us.
So I contacted others in Winterfilm about re-releasing Winter Soldier before the election, but they refused. They were cooperating with Kerry's campaign managers and did not want his VVAW connection to harm his election chances. I excoriated them in a blistering e-mail in which I insisted that, whether Kerry agreed or not, the voters of this country needed to know the truth of his VVAW history before the Bushistas spun it against him. Which is just what they did. And Kerry lost.
I never heard from Winterfilm again. I wasn't even notified that Winter Soldier was being re-released, much less invited to join the filmed conversation among the collective members that has been spliced onto the end of the film.
Then, a week before the re-premiere, Scott Camil, a true buddy, called me. As a vet who had given testimony (which he can document) at the WSI and who is featured in Winter Soldier, Scott had been invited to speak at its re-opening. When he noticed that I was not included on the Winterfilm roster, he called to ask if I wanted to be. OF COURSE I DID. My credibility was at stake: Having confronted the Swift Vet crew at TTU I know how they operate. So I wanted my participation at WSI clearly verified before the SBV portrayed me as a liar. I did not want my absence on Winterfilm lists to give them and opportunity to accuse me of faking my participation on the film.
I first met Scott on the night before he testified at the WSI. Over time, I watched him transform himself from a Marine sergeant boasting of his daring feats, into a man who returned the medals he was proud of, and then into an implacable antiwar activist. Just as Winterfilm featured Scott in Winter Soldier, so I feature him in my manuscript, “Combat by Trial: Travels and Travails with 20TH Century Winter Soldiers.”
Once Scott stepped in, my invitation was issued and I dashed off to NYC. I arrived with Scott and his wife Sherry along with Ken and Cathy Campbell. Ken is now Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations and Director of International Relations Program at the University of Delaware. He is also the vet who shot down Sinclair Broadcasting's plans to show Carlton Sherwood's anti-Kerry film, Stolen Honor, just before the election. That film has a clip from Winter Soldier (a possible copyright infringement) of Scott's debriefing, in which Ken verified Scott's story before VVAW allowed him to testify. The two had served in the same unit and were reminding each other of actions it had taken. Sherwood contended that Ken was coaching Scott on what to say. Wrong. Ken sued for misrepresentation and only portions of the film were aired.
The five of us (Ken, Cathy, Scott, Sherry and I) planned to meet Rusty Sachs and his wife for dinner before the Winter Soldier reception. Rusty had also testified at the WSI and, two days before the film’s re-opening, he was interviewed by Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.
Even when you go with "the flow," plans don't always go as arranged. We were still trying to hook up with Rusty when we arrived at the hotel where Ken and Cathy were staying and discovered a reunion of some of VVAW's earliest members and their spouses already underway in the hotel bar. We joined, of course. All faces had to be carefully examined to remove the changes more than 30 years of aging had wrought and the shaving of beards had revealed. The times they sure have been a-changin'. But we were still the way we were. The beards and fatigues were gone, but the vets dressed casually for a premiere (I was really hoping to finally see Scott in a suit). A surprising number of them—without consulting each other—wore Hawaiian shirts.
That sense of the absolute rightness of our being together again--which Scott and I (and other contributors to VetSpeak) had felt at TTU--was strong. About sixteen of us (all vets and wives, none from Winterfilm except me) followed "the flow" to a nearby Greek restaurant for a fine dinner. Rusty and his wife joined us just before we ordered, and later, stomachs content, we paraded down the avenue to the Walter Reade Theater at the Lincoln Center for the showing of one very powerful film.
During the reception before the showing I was unable to recognize the other Winterfilm people. While trying to identify them, I noticed a solitary man standing by himself. I asked him who he was, and he replied, "Jan Barry." Here was someone I had long wanted to meet, one of the original six members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Jan is a quiet, gentle, self-deprecating man with a talent for writing from the heart. I have always credited him with planting the seed that flowered into VVAW. That night, I felt honored to watch Winter Soldier by his side.
Winter Soldier is not an easy film to watch. There is a lot of pain and brutality, as well as the profane language of rage. But it is a true film because Winterfilm’s editors kept our promise to let the film make the vets’ statement, not ours. The vets helped with the editing, and provided photographs and 8-mm film footage they had shot while “in country.” Inescapably apparent truth is what makes this film so powerful. That truth is why, of all the films shot of Vietnam veterans in The Day, Winter Soldier is the one to be re-released. It is also why the turnout was so large that people had to be turned away from the theater. It looked to me as if as many people were turned away as were admitted. I heard there were a few protesters, but I didn’t see them.
After the showing, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary) spoke and sang. Then Scott, Ken, and Rusty (all featured in the film) spoke. Four Winterfilm members planned to speak, but the climax of the evening came when they gave up their seats to four members of the newly coalescing Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). The IVAW earned standing applause, and my eyes still tear up when I remember watching them come down to the stage and take the places vacated for them. They were so young. Their stories were so horribly familiar, even if the details differed.
The "flow" I first felt in Texas, and then in the bar of the NYC hotel (where we were inebriated only on each others’ company), I now felt with a new generation of misused veterans. Added to that, was the coming together for me, later that evening, with two women from Winterfilm. There was a purpose in all this, one that can never be forgotten or overshadowed by slights, accusations or misunderstandings that are always part of any human collective.
I wrote this while the biggest coming together was still taking place outside W’s “ranch” in Crawford, Texas. Some of the VetSpeak team joined Cindy Sheehan and other Gold-Star parents in asking our commander in chief what their children died for.
What have 1,900 United States military personnel died for in Iraq? What did 58,000 die for in Southeast Asia?
Don’t let the bastards stop us from coming together and demanding answers to these and so many other questions.