Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Gripes, Scripts, and Unanswered Questions

I saw Winter Soldier last night at the Bell Museum auditorium. The film documents a three-day conference in 1971 that was supposed to document atrocities during the Vietnam War. In addition to Dick Gregory and Jane Fonda, future Senator John Kerry was one of the organizers. Kerry appears briefly in the film.

A spokesman for Veterans for Peace introduced the film. His organization and Women Against Military Madness were responsible for bringing the film to the Twin Cities, he said. The unintentionally funny moment of his speech was when he referred to the subsequent event where veterans threw away their medals. This event had become a mini-controversy in the last presidential campaign with Kerry scrambling to explain why he still had his medals if he had thrown them away.

I wondered why such a "powerful" movie for which John Kerry was largely responsible would not have been released before the election. Apparently, there are allegations that much of the testimony was faked. It is not just that the witnesses were embellishing their testimony, but that some of them had never served in Vietnam and had appropriated the identities of real veterans.

Minneapolis Star Tribune movie critic Colin Covert mentions the controversy, but asks us to attend Winter Soldier and "judge for [ourselves]." That makes sense for evaluating a work of fiction, but not a documentary of questionable accuracy. If the witnesses are imposters and the testimony faked, how are we supposed to judge that from the movie itself?

There was one moment where an interviewer made a statement to a former Marine about being in the "Army." I suppose that the interviewee could have just been polite in not correcting the mistake. Another interesting issue is how "the Few, the Proud" Marines were overrepresented in the film. In general, the witnesses seem to come from only a handful of units.

The interviews on the screen are mostly done in a press conference setting. Most of the value of corroboration is lost as the panelists listen to each other's stories and almost seem to be engaging in one-upsmanship. The stories range from true atrocities, to bad strategy in the war, to gripes about Boot Camp.

Even if they are telling the truth, the testimony does not support that atrocities were committed with, as Covert says, "full awareness of officers at all levels." If helicopter pilots are told not to count prisoners when they get on the aircraft (to avoid evidence that some were thrown overboard), that means that they were trying to keep higher ups from finding out. Similarly, one witness stated that he was not supposed to abuse prisoners when people from outside his unit. This suggests that there was not full awareness of officers at all levels. Why hide it if everyone knows about it?

Many of the press conference stories are scripted. The panelists' eyes go back and forth from the audience to their notes on the desk. This does not necessarily mean that their testimony is false, but the investigation lacks the value of separate, unprompted witness interviews. The stories of troops being brainwashed are laughable. Overall, there are no convincing explanations of how each witness went from cold-blooded killer to an enlightened peace activist. There are no whistleblowers among them. It is all confessions by formerly brainwashed war criminals.

I am interested to see if the witnesses are who they say they are and served where they claimed to have served. In that way, I agree with Colin Covert. Release this thing on DVD and we can conduct our own investigation. Better late than never.


Blogger just a bidness man said...

That is a good point you mentioned about the Marines being the predominant interviewees. The majority of the allegations of miscounduct are aimed at Army units. Marines were farther north fighting mostly NVA troops, less of the VC and less of the village interaction and Americanization, where the supposed injustices took place.
Yeah, something labeled as a documentary and shown at a college theater where your average student doesn't know a thing about Vietnam is itself an injustice. How can this writer's readers be told this is a documentary but, it has some questionable facts.
Anyways, lately I've been wondering what a documentry is lately.

September 20, 2005 11:06 AM  

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