When We Were Psychos

Michael Atkinson

In 1969, news of the My Lai massacre hit the American press and gave the already-queasy stateside citizenry a shock to the system. Nothing in that tumultuous era evoked so terrifyingly the feeling that a line had been crossed, from hopeful civilization to horrific monstrosity.

There was fallout of all varieties, but one of the most remarkable results was eventus non grata then and remained so for decades: the January, 1971 Winter Soldier Investigations,” held in a Detroit Howard Johnson conference room. (The title is a reply to Thomas Paine’s times that try men’s souls,” when the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”) Organized by several antiwar organizations, the event was simple: More than 100 returned Vietnam veterans spoke in public, and for the media, about atrocities they’d witnessed and performed upon the peasant population of Southeast Asia. True to its leash, the media didn’t report on it, but a document was created nonetheless, a documentary made by an anonymous collective of 18 filmmakers. Winter Soldier was left undistributed, and shunned by the networks (although PBS reportedly broadcast it once late at night as a replacement program). While the war still raged, it only appeared in 1972 at the Whitney Museum in New York or at sporadic campus screenings. Then it vanished.

Now, Milestone Films, under its new offshoot Milliarium Zero, has disinterred this galvanizing broadsword. In what is effectively its first release, the film will play in more than 100 cities this year, and then get locked in DVD amber for the world to see. It is a simple, grainy, talking-heads documentary, but it is violently upsetting and required viewing.

Vietnam homefront experience has come to be defined as the living-room war,” suggesting that we saw it all on our televisions, and that public exposure was part of the propulsion that caused the U.S. government to finally cease aggressions. But the testimony in Winter Soldier makes it clear that we actually saw very little – My Lai was no aberration, but a paradigm of U.S. activity, and what was de rigueur on the ground was largely kept from reporters’ cameras.

The film’s relentless first-person-witness assault echoes Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, demonstrating that being told can be more lacerating than being shown. We experience not only the atrocities but the shock felt by the witnesses and the emotional venom still necrotizing their lives. No fiction film about Vietnam has ever come close to this movie’s portrayal of American guilt and trauma. The chillingly calm speakers recount incidents that have made many walk out of the theater in a sickened swoon. But while we may weep for the broken heart of an American generation, the real remorse here is for the victims: Asian farmers mutilated and slaughtered as a kind of imperial bloodsport – tossed out of helicopters on a bet, disemboweled alive, thrown down wells with grenades, men, women and children, by the thousands. 

One movie can only have so much impact, but it’s tempting to imagine that if Winter Soldier had been properly screened in 1972, the war might’ve ended sooner, or, at least, Americans would know something they still apparently don’t about the conflict, its costs, and the nature of their leadership. (A major at the time, Colin Powell came late to My Lai, officially excusing it and maintaining that American-Vietnamese relations were excellent.”) Most of all, they might’ve learned something about murder and butchery – that even when it happens to Asians far away, we’re ultimately responsible for the bodies and rivers of blood. 

Winter Soldier might’ve been the most important film of the Johnson-Nixon era, and yet it was effectively censored. Its release, 33 years too late, is also a few years overdue this decade. If only Milestone had dropped this payload on us in 2002, as the war machine was oiling up. Now, it’s a film for the future – in an ideal and informed democracy, a Winter Soldier screening would be a voter registration requirement.

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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