Nancy Miller Saunders : They Tried to Tell Us

Vietnam veterans testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation in 1972. Image is a screen grab from the film, Winter Soldier, produced by the Winterfilm Collective.

Winter Soldiers:
They tried to tell us

We as a nation did not want to know the horrible truth of what we asked our children to do in Vietnam. To acknowledge it was to admit complicity, to take responsibility for it.

By Nancy Miller Saunders | The Rag Blog | February 8, 2013

Forty-two years ago, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War tried to do what Nick Turse seems to have accomplished, judging by Jonathan Schell’s review of Turse’s book, Kill Anything that Moves, in The Nation and online at TomDispatch.com.

The veterans did not have access to the classified information or Pentagon reports Turse used to document the brutal horror the war really was as a result of government pressures. All the vets had were their personal experiences and DD214s (discharge papers that listed their assignments), which about 100 of them took to Detroit in the winter of 1971 for what they called the Winter Soldier Investigation (WSI).

Every veteran who testified had to provide proof of service and whenever possible their testimony was corroborated by other veterans. VVAW was trying to tell the nation for which they had fought, killed, and sacrificed that My Lai was not an aberration, that it was U.S. policy they were ordered to carry out.

I was a member of the film collective, Winterfilm, that had come together to document the WSI, VVAW’s second major demonstration. Most of us had gotten to know the vets while filming their first action over Labor Day weekend 1970.

Video cameras had not yet come into their own for documentaries, so we were using 16mm film. Since the audio was taped separately, my job at the WSI was to take notes of the testimony so that our editors could synchronize picture and sound for our film, Winter Soldier. Thus, except for one panel, I listened closely to all three days of mind-wrenching testimony from men I had learned to respect.

In the process I saw the kind of documentation I needed to believe them. I looked at their firm, youthful cheeks, none completely hidden under beards. And then I looked into their eyes, which were those of old men who had seen too much grief in long lives.

I saw hardened combat veterans weeping on each others’ shoulders. I watched one veteran lean against a wall and slide down in moaning, “It’s no use. It’s no use.” And I watched other veterans kneel beside him, hold him, comfort him, and let him talk.

None of this was acting. Also none of it was the kind of documentation required to prove a point to those who were not there.

Winterfilm’s editors did their best to communicate this documentation while also including clips of the care VVAW took to confirm veterans’ stories before it would let them testify. In one debriefing a former Marine sergeant, Scott Camil, is being questioned while another Marine from his unit corroborates and adds to Camil’s stories.

But these debriefings were not credible documentation for those who did not want to believe that our troops — our brothers and sons, friends and neighbors — could possibly have done what these men were saying they had done and seen others do.

Therefore, the consensus had to be — as veterans in cities around the country held their own WSIs — that the men testifying were a handful of dangerous men, homegrown terrorists, a threat to national security. Either that or they were peaceniks smearing the reputation and dedication of our troops. Either way, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War were not to be believed.

The Nixon administration saw them as a threat to its credibility. Twice VVAW’s exposure of military movements forced changes of plans. I can almost hear Nixon paraphrasing King Henry II: “Will no one rid me of these turbulent vets?”

Local and federal spies and provocateurs were infiltrated into VVAW. I knew two of them — Bill Lemmer of Arkansas and Karl Becker of New Orleans. I personally saw both try to provoke the veterans into fights. I also saw FBI reports picturing VVAW as dangerously violent.

Six of VVAW’s Southern leaders, including Scott Camil, were indicted for conspiracy to provoke riots at the 1972 Republican convention, when VVAW had actually undertaken responsibility for keeping the peace among demonstrators at both conventions to avoid a repeat of the riots at the Democrats’ 1968 convention in Chicago just four years earlier. After two more defendants were added in a superseding indictment, they became known collectively as the Gainesville 8.

Lemmer and Becker were two of the FBI informers called by the prosecution to testify against the 8. Because I knew both of them, the defense attorneys hired me to help them with their cross-examinations of the two. Because the judge refused to admit the 8’s defense arguments — that their plans were purely defensive, the result of information supplied by local and federal provocateurs — cross-examinations to reveal the truth were crucial to their defense. The jury quickly returned a blanket acquittal.

The campaign against VVAW was revived during John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign by the Swiftboat nay-sayers. The corroboration of Camil’s testimony they said was “proof” that Camil had been “coached.” Kerry’s interview with Pitkin, who had now turned against VVAW, was “proof” Kerry helped to slander our gallant troops

Despite condemnation of the Vietnam Veterans against the War, there seemed to be a national schizophrenia about the Vietnam War and its veterans. On the one hand they were our troops whom we should all honor for their dedication and sacrifice. On the other, they were “baby burners,” the villains in TV shows night after night. Scriptwriters no longer needed to provide motives for crimes the bad guys committed. All that was needed was a mention that a certain character was a Vietnam veteran and the audience knew he was the villain.

We as a nation did not want to know the horrible truth of what we asked our children to do in Vietnam. To acknowledge it was to admit complicity, to take responsibility for it. Peter Michelson, who attended the WSI, wrote in the February 27, 1971, New Republic,

As the testimony flooded over me for three days I kept saying, “I don’t want to hear this.” I knew that what I was hearing was true; I knew it from other veterans, from published accounts, and from my own brother who had been there. What I was resisting were the ethical obligations that knowledge imposes. Like most people, I didn’t want to have to work out what I ought to do… I am afraid of what I ought to do.

[Nancy Miller Saunders is the author of Combat by Trial: An Odyssey with 20th Century Winter Soldiers in which she tells of her years of working with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and includes stories entrusted to her by veterans to tell, which she lets them do whenever possible in their own words. Read more articles by Nancy Miller Saunders on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to Nancy Miller Saunders : They Tried to Tell Us

  1. Betty DuBose Hamilton says:

    Thanks for publishing Nancy Miller Saunders’ article. It needs to be shared universally! I have a copy of her book, and although I knew the VVAW through my brother who helped to organize the Texas chapter, it was not until I read COMBAT BY TRIAL that I really understood what that movement was all about. I highly recommend the book. It’s a “page-turner” that explains a great deal more than “news” reports of the day did. Also, I was in the audience when a panel she organized for the Vietnam Symposium (TTU, 2005) soundly refuted the “Swiftboat Veterans for ‘Truth'[sic]” who were so active during the campaign of 2004. The video of both presentations are on the Vietnam Archives website, Texas Tech University.

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