Monday, August 15, 2005

Winter Soldier Testimony Still Powerful

I just returned home after seeing the movie "Winter Soldier" at Lincoln Center. Based on the 1971 Detroit "Winter Soldier Investigation," the film delivers truths about US war-crimes in Vietnam that most Americans still do not want to see. As VVAW put it when they heard of Bob Kerrey's leading of a massacre in Thanh Phong,
Knowledge of atrocities is not news to many Vietnam veterans. When returning GIs began telling people what was happening, many Americans didnt want to believe it. In January 1971 the Winter Soldier Investigation was organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War and held in Detroit. Over 100 combat vets testified there about atrocities they had been involved in or witnessed as a direct result of the US military policy of free fire zones, search and destroy missions and body count as the measure of success.
I found it interesting to hear, in the film after the film, that of all the places it was shown in the 1970s, that "Winter Soldier" was most popular in Germany, a place where the memory of crimes in the name of patriotism is now far from repressed.
I was struck during the movie both of how central the conflict over the memory of the Vietnam war still is to our current counter-revolutionary political scene (remember the "Swift Boat Veterans" who attacked Kerry for his role in the WSI?), and how little things have changed. It is a sad day when history is relevant because we really are repeating the worst sins of the past.
In the effort to manage or dismiss the power of the testimony of the Vietnam vets who described atrocities they either witnessed or participated in, the Swift Boat liars and others have been claiming since the '70s that the people who went to the hearing weren't vets, /or that they were being manipulated by the North Vietnamese government (all through the connections of John Kerry and Jane Fonda, apparently), or secretly funded by the Soviets. The detractors of the investigation have written books based mostly on unsubstantiated claims, overblown attention to small details (such as the fact that one individual on the tribunal lied about his rank), and outright fabrications, many of which are cleared up in the wikipedia article linked above, and by >this piece by John Prados. These attempts don't manage to refute the reality of the hearings: that 100+ soldiers came together to tell stories of events that they participated in or that they observed.
When those abstract figures "military Families" and "our troops," the symbols generally used so powefully by the govt's propaganda campaign of saccharine celebration of the war, are interrupted by actual veterans and families who come forward in the flesh to speak the uncomfortable realities of war: death, pain and humiliation, the government's defenders will merely argue that the real people are not "real," and that their stories are inauthentic. The forces of power will continue to insist on the reality of their own stage-managed media-military experience and beg the nation to participate in that image of war, that identity of soldier-hood or national familyhood, vicariously. The arrival on the scene of actual soldiers and soldiers' families: Cindy Sheehan, Alex Ryabov, and all the the winter soldiers breaks that ersatz mythical national family apart. They throw into question the very image that people imagine when they say, "I support the troops." Every one of these eruptions of the reality of war into the fantasized national military family does its job, and that is why their testimony provokes such intense denunciation from hawks. Once their experiences of war are recognized, the war's myth of glory is extinguished forever.

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