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Documenting the U.S. Soldier in War

12 Apr, 2006 By: Erik Gruenwedel

Winter Soldier

Armed conflict brings out the best and worst in men. Both sides are on display in two documentaries, Winter Soldier and Patriot Act: A Jeffrey Ross Home Movie.

Winter Soldier from Milestone Films & Video (DVD $24.95) streets May 30 (prebook April 26) from New Yorker Video. Patriot Act streets July 11 from Hart Sharp Video (DVD $19.99) and will broadcast on Showtime over Memorial Day weekend.

Separately, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment June 27 streets Why We Fight (DVD $24.96), about the domestic impact of the military-industrial complex.

Winter Soldier showcases graphic testimony from 125 Vietnam War veterans seeking U.S. withdrawal from the conflict during a three-day gathering in 1971 in Detroit.

Cobbled from 16mm black-and-white outtakes shot by 19 aspiring filmmakers known as the Winterfilm Collective, soldiers convey the atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers against suspected North Vietnamese combatants and Vietnamese civilians.

The words and images are horrific: Shackled prisoners thrown from helicopters for sport; villages burned to the ground; inhabitants, including children, shot, raped and gutted like fish.

“You see these fresh-faced kids talking about doing really terrible things [in Vietnam],” said Amy Heller, co-owner of Milestone. “It's pretty hard to watch, even 35 years later.”

One of the veterans briefly shown is future U.S. Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry. Attempts to release this film prior to the 2004 elections were quashed in part by the Kerry campaign, according to Heller.

“It's hard to listen to what these vets talk about and not think about what is going on in Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib, where clearly there are abuses against prisoners taking place,” Heller said. “The Vietnam War was an atrocity the way it was staged and how it involved a lot of civilian deaths.”

Decades later, America finds itself in another armed conflict portrayed in Patriot Act. Comedian Jeffrey Ross accompanied a troupe of stand-up acts to entertain U.S. soldiers in Iraq via the USO for five days in 2003.

Ross took a digital camcorder to record home movies. He got a whole lot more.

“I went over there for that job, and everything else happened by accident,” said Ross, who was granted unlimited access by the military due in part to his non-soldier status.

“I got really candid interviews [with the soldiers],” Ross said. “I was able to go up in the air and shoot out of the window of a Black Hawk helicopter.”

Ross, who now is editing his own comedy show for MTV, said that prior to going to Iraq, he confused the military and the government as a single entity.

“It made me have a positive respect for the soldiers,” Ross said. “It put a human face on the challenges the soldiers are facing, something that you don't see on the news.”

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