Of the many military terms repeated throughout the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier, “SOP” (shorthand for standard operating procedure) proves the most unsettling. This term is used to contextualize the daily atrocities committed by American soldiers against Vietnamese civilians during the Vietnam War, and it’s uttered by a large number of the more than 125 veterans who gathered in a hotel conference room in 1971 to offer protest in the form of testimony. Finally released on DVD this past week, the documentary of this testimony could not be more relevant, as the U.S. military faces harsh criticism for a civilian massacre at the Iraqi village Haditha last November. While Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki calls it “a horrible crime”, Gen. Peter Chiarelli and other American officers continue a long tradition of framing this unspeakable violence as “isolated incidents” “exceptions” or “aberrations”.
Yet, as the genuinely horrifying testimonies of the soldiers in Winter Soldier reveal, the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians has been a consistent, if unspoken, practice of the U.S. military. The veterans were organized mostly in response to the revelations of My Lai but their individual stories, of bodies tossed from helicopters, of women mutilated, of men skinned alive, of children burned, carry from the first day of duty to the last across a range of battalions and divisions. One soldier comments that if a given atrocity was wrong, there was the belief that a more senior officer would clearly stop it, while another explains how boot camp trained him to treat all Vietnamese as animals to be eviscerated. Another solider shamefully shows a picture of himself smiling with a propped-up dead civilian at his legs, while another tells of the shooting of children out of sheer boredom. With each revelation of inexplicable torture or murder, the film becomes less a protest of the war and more an examination of the military mindset that allows for such crimes to continue today. Authority goes unquestioned, “don’t ask, don’t tell” reigns supreme, while the cost of a Vietnamese life, however innocent, appears negligible.
Made by an anonymous collective of documentarians, all donating their services and equipment free, the film focuses solely on the storytelling of the veterans, most of whom relay their experiences in a matter-of-fact manner that only heightens the numbing sensation of listening to so much horror. Though it played Cannes and other major festivals around the world on initial release, the film was virtually ignored in a U.S. still involved in the war. It’s now more known for a very brief appearance by John Kerry, a shame since its lessons transcend bipartisan politics. Simply put, this DVD should be mailed to every home in the country.