Winter Soldier Hearings
John J. Fitzgerald, "The Winter Soldier Hearings," Radical History Review 97 (Winter, 2007): 118-22.
By the end of the 1960s, reports of U.S. atrocities committed in Vietnam had percolated into the mainstream media. The My Lai Massacre story broke in late 1969, followed shortly after by Simon and Schuster’s publication of Mark Lane’s Conversations with Americans, which told lurid tales of rape, murder, and torture of civilians in Vietnam at the hands of people who seemed more like homicidal maniacs than American soldiers. 1 While much (but not all) of what Lane presented in his book was revealed to be a fabrication by the investigative reporter Neil Sheehan in a December 1970 review that appeared in the New York Times, Sheehan nonetheless called for a sane and honest inquiry into the question of war crimes and atrocities in Vietnam by a body of knowledgeable and responsible men not beholden to the current military establishment. Who those men are and how that inquiry ought to be conducted are questions I do not have the space to discuss here, but the need for the inquiry is self-evident. Too large a segment of the citizenry believes that war crimes and atrocities have taken place for the question to be ignored. 2
Even as Sheehan was writing his review, a year-long effort to convene such an inquiry by the ad hoc Citizens Commission of Inquiry—comprised mostly of Vietnam Veterans against the War but also religious, labor, and celebrity antiwar activists such as the United Auto Workers secretary-treasurer Emil Mazey, Dick Gregory, Jeremy Rifkin, Jane Fonda, and Donald Sutherland—was coming to completion. Dubbed the Winter Soldier Hearings, in reference to Thomas Paine’s famous remark about the “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” shrinking from the service to their country,3 the inquiry took place over the course of three days in late January and early February of 1971 in Detroit, Michigan. The proceedings, counseled by the Center for Constitutional Rights, went to great length both to verify the authenticity of the more than one hundred Veterans who gave testimony and to follow established legal doctrine, hoping to document that the kind of killing that took place at My Lai under Lieutenant William Calley’s leadership was not an isolated incident but formed part of a larger, systematic breakdown of command and control within the military itself.4 Only three branches of the Army and Marine Corps—the infantry, artillery, and armor— are considered combat arms, and most of those who testified were from the infantry, the branch that had the most interaction with the people of Vietnamese villages and suffered the highest fatality and casualty rates.
Despite the call issuing from the pages of no less than the New York Times for an inquiry into U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, the press largely ignored the hearings. The documentary made of the event, Winter Soldier: The Film, (Produced and directed by Winterfilm Collective in association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, 1972.) likewise got limited play, yet watching it today, more than three decades later, I was reminded of the honesty and intensity the individual veterans brought to their testimony. Based on my own military experience in Vietnam in 1966, I believe that the film records truthful statements based on actual combat zone experiences. It strikingly reveals how war strips away the humanity of the participants. This forms part of the film’s truth. With each day in the combat zone, one gradually becomes more callous, suspicious, apprehensive, and fearful. One learns to cope with the fear, but one pays a psychological price. One becomes cold, cynical, and inhumane. This is probably true for all wars, but in Vietnam, where one had not only the stress of combat but also the uneasy notion that what one was told about the situation did not match the reality of events happening on the ground, intensified this effect. Psychologists call this “cognitive dissonance.” The official version of why we went to Vietnam was because the South Vietnamese government invited us to protect its people from attack by communists from the North. Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson had all promised help to the valiant people of Vietnam against communist aggression, telling us that our mission in Southeast Asia was the same as it was in Germany, Cuba, Iran, and Guatemala. This was the message of a Defense Department film shown to soldiers as part of their preparation for a tour of duty in Vietnam calledWhy Vietnam?, (Armed Forces Information and Education – Department of Defense [AFIF – 149], 1965.) a total distortion of the historical record of the U.S. role in French Indochina, the Cold War, and Vietnam.5
As captured in Winter Soldier, the reality of what a combat military unit encountered in Vietnam differed greatly from the official version. We were told we were “helping our friends” and “defending our allies,” yet we experienced unrelenting hostility. When I served as a platoon leader with the 25th Infantry Division, supplies for our base camp at Cu Chi in 1966 came in by air, or else by a heavily armed truck convoy. The roads to and from our camp were not secure, night travel was too dangerous to attempt, and convoys always had an armed helicopter escort. Snipers fired at our battalion headquarters nightly, from the village of Cu Chi, supposedly safe territory. In other words, we were not welcomed as friends, nor did we perceive the Vietnamese as friends. Twenty miles from Saigon, twenty miles from Cambodia, in a heavily fortified camp that was, prior to our arrival, in a strong National Liberation Front area, many concluded that no one was on our side and that their main goal now was not to help an ally but to simply survive their tour of duty.
Angry soldiers who have lost close friends can do illegal and immoral things. On the day I was wounded, and one of my men was killed, a sergeant who was the dead man’s squad leader came up to me and told me that he had “taken care” of the prisoners that another squad had captured not far from where we were ambushed. At the time, I was not sure what he meant, but a month later, in a letter from another officer, after I had asked what happened to the prisoners, I learned that no prisoners were taken that day. The official body count for our action was nine enemy dead, a figure apparently plucked from thin air to balance the actual death of one of our soldiers (the sergeant who probably killed the prisoners was later killed in action, along with a number of other men caught in an enemy minefield).
Of the forty-three men of my platoon—First Platoon, B Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry of the First Brigade, 25th Infantry Division—who arrived with me in Vietnam from Hawaii in late April of 1966, everyone was either killed or wounded by the end of our year-long tour of duty. Of the survivors, all were psychologically wounded. The men in Winter Soldiertalk to us in a manner far different from the way men talk in an American Legion club or a Veterans of Foreign Wars bar. They are not telling war stories, but giving testimony that does not make them look good, offering serious commentary on the actual war on the ground, detailing what the war did to them and to the people of Vietnam. Theirs is not a pleasant world to view or to visit. It makes you think of insanity and psychopathology. Can these soft-spoken people actually be the killers that they claim to be? We have their words, but beyond that there, is no other evidence, except for what was left behind in South Vietnam.
The documentary, like the hearings, focuses primarily on the actions of individual infantry soldiers in the Army and the Marines. It does not include any testimony from B-52 pilots and crews who participated in carpet-bombing raids in North and South Vietnam. Raids typically included eighteen planes, each dropping about thirty tons of bombs filled with TNT on their target, which were called “enemy base camps” but were often villages of men, women, and children in free-fire zones. Nor does Winter Soldierinclude any testimony from the crews of destroyers and cruisers off the coast of Vietnam that were used to deliver naval artillery fire on Vietnam in support of land units. They were notoriously inaccurate and no doubt contributed to a large number of so-called “friendly fire” deaths. John F. Kerry appears briefly in the film, but he does not speak about his riverboat excursions and their infamous use of machine guns to do “reconnaissance by fire,” which entailed firing into shoreline vegetation to see whether hostiles were concealed. Kerry later became the voice of the Vietnam Veterans against the War following his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two months after the Winter Solder hearings, but there, too, he declined to reveal his own swift-boat experience.
The power of the individual testimonies in the documentary in some way obstructs the hearings’ objective of placing atrocities like My Lai in a larger chain of responsibility. Winter Soldierfocuses on the actions of soldiers who did things considered illegal according to the military’s own code of conduct, avoiding a larger critique of U.S. government policy. But what was official policy? It was to create free-fire zones in which anything that moved was presumed to be “enemy” and could be killed. It was to use so-called harassment and interdiction fire, usually from artillery, at preselected points on the ground. It was random, and the desired effect was terror. Policy was to use “time-on-target” barrages fired from long-range artillery to produce an airburst of fire over a potential target, blanketing the area with shrapnel. Policy was to deploy unmapped minefields, a violation of international law, which to this day injure and kill peasants. And it was policy to spray defoliants, such as Agent Orange, to kill off vegetation and crops in so-called enemy areas. But the documentary does not dwell on these issues, nor does it say much about the destruction wrought by the extremely powerful weapons deployed.
The men we see in Winter Soldierwere the tools used to carry out this policy. They carry the mental and physical scars that come from being used as weapons of that war. The individual soldiers who raped and killed and tortured prisoners and civilians did violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice. These were crimes; even according to the military’s own standards. But what of the greater crimes launched by Eisenhower, supported by Kennedy, escalated by Johnson, and continued by Richard M. Nixon? The film does not address the larger question of strategic war crimes in Vietnam. This is a serious fault, one akin to a film about Germany in World War II that only covered the felonies and misdemeanors of soldiers and never once mentioned the Nazi leadership—or of an inquiry into torture in Abu Ghraib that ignored the crimes of the Bush administration.
1. Mark Lane, Conversations With Americans. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.
2. Neil Sheehan, “Conversations With Americans” The New York Times Book Review, 27 December 1970. Pp. 5, 19. [See also: Neil Sheehan, “Should We Have War Crime Trials?” The New York Times Book Review, 28 March 1971, Pp. 1 – 3, 30 – 34.]
3. Nelson Adkins, editor. Thomas Paine: Common Sense and Other Political Writings. (New York: Macmillan, 1953) p. 55.
4. Practically before the last witness finished testifying, defenders of the war launched a disinformation campaign designed to discredit the hearings, a campaign revived by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid. Subsequent evidence, however, overwhelmingly supports the veracity of the Winter Solder Hearings revelations. See Nicholas Turse, “Swift Boat Swill: From the National Archives New Proof of Vietnam War Atrocities,” Village Voice, September 21, 2004. See also the widely ignored Toledo Blade’s September 2004 series on war crimes committed by the elite U.S. Tiger Force.
5. For an excellent analysis of “Why Vietnam?” see Henry Steele Commager, “On the way to 1984,” Saturday Review. April 15, 1967, Pp. 68–69, 80–82.
Notes on Contributor
John J. Fitzgerald is a retired teacher from Longmeadow High School, in Massachusetts, where he taught social studies and served as the department chair. During the Vietnam War, he served in the U.S. Army as a combat infantry platoon leader, where he was wounded in action and awarded the Bronze Star for Valor and the Purple Heart. An early member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he joined the antiwar movement in 1967 and supported Eugene J. McCarthy for president in 1968. He is the coeditor of The Vietnam War: A History in Documents (2002).