In his life Scott Camil has been shot three times: twice in Vietnam and once by the US government. A well known anti-war activist and speaker, Scott first found his voice during the historical occasion of the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971. He numbered among 125 young Vietnam vets, including John Kerry, who gathered to tell Americans the truth, in harrowing detail, of the atrocities they’d routinely seen and committed.
This 3 day event was the subject of the documentary Winter Soldier, an account of the testimony using archival footage here. The intention of enquiry and film was to show that US policies in Vietnam had led to war crimes and to make accountable those superiors in the chain of command, all the way to the president. Shown over the years at a number of festivals and colleges in the US and abroad, it’s taken 34 years to get wide theatrical release and has never been televised nationally.
I recently had the good fortune of visiting Scott and his wife Sherry in their home in Gainesville, Florida. I’ve since seen the documentary about Scott, Seasoned Veteran, on the Winter Soldier DVD. He agreed to speak to Montreal Serai about how the present echoes the past, two wars and his battle for the environment.
MS: Scott, why did you go to war?
I grew up in a poor, working class family. We were on food stamps and no one in my family had ever been to college. I was raised to believe that it was my duty, as an American male, to go into the military after I finished high school. On the high school campuses there were recruiters, walking around in their uniforms, wearing lots of medals, the girls were impressed by them, and I wanted one of those uniforms. In my senior year the recruiters enlisted me. I signed up in the Delayed Enlistment Program. 80% of all enlisted personnel are still enlisted that way.
MS: Could you describe your transition of turning against the war?
I’m a little embarrassed by that question because I was a real slow learner. While I was in Vietnam things happened that didn’t make sense to me. Growing up watching WW2 movies I’d see the American army capturing one city then another and another to get to the enemy’s capital. But in Vietnam it wasn’t like that. We’d continually fight over property we’d already won before; I had the feeling we weren’t accomplishing anything. Although we measured our success by body count. And we were taught to believe that if we killed 10 Vietnamese for every American that died then we’d win the war. When you use body count as a measure of success then you soon end up with piles of dead people.
When I came home from the war I didn’t question it because I figured that the people running the government have all been to college, and have access to secret information, that you just have to trust them. And then I was able to start college thanks to the GI Bill. But then I started reading stuff: the leaked Pentagon Papers, Howard Zinn, and Eisenhower’s Mandate For Change, which talked about the fact that if we had allowed the free elections to take place then Ho chi Minh would have won which was why we didn’t allow them. When I read that, it really shocked me that I actually had gone to Vietnam to stop the Vietnamese from having the democracy they wanted. Because that’s not who I was. I believed in democracy and the revolution that gave rise to it.
Then I went to see Jane Fonda speak at the University of Florida. Really I went to see what Barbarella looked like. But there came a point in her talk when she grabbed my attention. She said that in order for a democracy to function the people had to have access to true information and if they didn’t have that access they were being manipulated. And she said that the government was lying about Vietnam and I knew that was true because I’d been there. Then she appealed to patriotic Vietnam Veterans to come forth and tell the American public what was going on in Vietnam. Well, I felt she was talking to me. So I went and told her that I’d be willing to talk about what I did in Vietnam and I was given a free plane ticket to Detroit.
When I arrived at Winter Soldier I wasn’t really questioning the war at that point but rather how democracy works and the right of the public to know the truth. But when the filmmakers started asking me questions…you can see in the film it was, “wow I never thought about that before”. They’d ask me questions like, “What did you think about when you were doing that?” What do you think about that now? And I hadn’t thought about it when I was doing it and I hadn’t thought about it since.
Scott Camil testifying at the Winter Soldier Investigation (as seen in the documentary)
Then I saw what everyone had to say about Vietnam. And I met some Vietnamese people who were really nice. And I realized that I could get along with these people. So why was I trying to kill them? Because they lived in a place where my government sent me to kill people. And why were they trying to kill me? Well, they were defending their homes. So I started working against the war. But I came back from Vietnam in 1967 and I didn’t join the anti-war movement until 1971. It took me 4 years to figure things out.
MS: The title Winter Soldier, is taken from the revolutionary, Thomas Paine, 1776,”These are the times that try men’s souls. The summertime soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Did you connect with this back then?
I felt that I was still serving my country through my belief in patriotism and democracy, like the Winter Soldier who, at Valley Forge, decided that even though their time was up they were still going to fight.
MS: Watching the film I found myself wondering what it was like for you to find such common yet terrible ground with the other veterans testifying?
Most veterans of war won’t discuss with you what they did in war because it’s too much of a burden and it’s things you don’t want to remember because war is such a terrible event. When I do public speaking I always ask people, “Do you know a veteran?” and a bunch of hands go up and then I ask, “Has that veteran ever discussed with you what he did during the war?” and then all the hands go down. But when veterans are together they’ll talk together about it because they shared that experience, will not be judgmental and will understand. Unlike the general public. There’s no way they’re going to be able to understand.
A Winter Soldier saluting. (as seen in the documentary)
MS: The website to the film describes the testimonies as an early attempt at a process of truth and reconciliation. On a personal level did the truth somehow set you free?
I’m a strong believer in the truth but I think that what helps you as much as telling the truth is getting support for telling the truth. And the support of the public for Winter Soldier and then the support I got afterwards from peers is what made it work.
MS: In the preview it says, “They risked it all to tell the truth.” What were you risking?
To begin with, people’s condemnation and ridicule. I didn’t feel I was risking going to jail until the questions were asked about the things we did that were considered crimes of war. Then I felt on the one hand that we were placing ourselves at risk but on the other that since what we did was official US policy there was no way they were going to be able to punish us without being accountable for that policy and punishing themselves.
MS: What was that policy to you?
There were 2 policies here: official policy and then what people do when they believe their lives are at stake. Official US policy was to measure success by body count. We operated in areas called Free Fire Zones and we were taught that enemy activity is only possible in that zone because the civilians are supporting them. So that if we destroy the crops and the water then the civilians will leave, and the enemy will move out of the area. The method of destroying life was officially called Search and Destroy.
Humans have a very strong will to survive, at least I do; I don’t want to die. The third week I was there we were overrun by sappers (suicide bombers). 5 of us were killed (one of them my first buddy) and 28 wounded. There were 40 dead South Vietnamese. At that point I realized you don’t get a second chance and I decided that if I couldn’t tell the difference between the South Vietnamese that liked us and the South Vietnamese that didn’t like us then I was going wipe them all out because if they were dead then they couldn’t hurt me. It was then that I lost my empathy for the Vietnamese as human beings. When you put people in war that’s what happens. They’re going to err on the side of safety and that means the death of innocent civilians. That’s what war is.
MS: In Winter Soldier there’s amazing footage of you and hundreds of other Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) surging upon Capital Hill and literally throwing your medals back at the government in outrage.
That was one of the hardest things I had to do, believe it or not. When I came back from Vietnam all I really had to show for it were my medals and I was proud of those medals because I earned them; I thought that it wasn’t my fault the war was wrong. So though I voted to do this I didn’t know whether I’d be able. It wasn’t until I got to the front of the line that I knew I could. And when I threw them it was like shedding a great weight, like cutting the umbilical cord between the government and myself, leaving me free to do what I thought was right.
MS: You said that, “Never before had vets of any nation marched on their capital during a war, denounced the war and thrown their medals away.” “We wanted to do something that was significant, that was graphic, and that was historical.” Is there evidence that shows the VVAW actions and the film played a significant role in ending the war?
After Winter Soldier the VVAW became the point of the spear of the anti-war movement. A lot people felt that VVAW gave the anti-war movement more credibility. But even if there hadn’t been a Winter Soldier or VVAW the war would have ended anyway because it wasn’t the kind of war you can win. If another country invaded the US for regime change, even though I strongly support regime change, I’d fight against that country because I’m an American first.
Scott Camil in Vietnam, taken from archival footage used in the Winter Soldier documentary.
MS: In Seasoned Veteran, a fellow VVAW says that as a coordinator and spokesperson you were “a lightening rod that attracted all the hatred and all the animosity”, that strangers would spit and yell at you on the one hand, or praise and donate to the cause on the other. How did you handle that?
The government attacked me so violently that every time they came after me it made me think that if I wasn’t being productive they wouldn’t care, so the harder they came after me the harder I worked.
MS: How did the government come after you?
After my testimony I was arrested on 18 separate charges in a 6 month period. I won those charges in court. Then J. Edgar Hoover signed an authorization for my neutralization as a threat to national security. One day my door is kicked in, my house trashed, my hands held above my head by one agent, while another sticks a gun to my back and shoots me, sending a bullet through me that damages my kidney and liver, fractures ribs and collapses a lung before coming out the front. I was facing death and 120 years in prison. Again I faced a jury trial and was found not guilty. In fact, the jury recommended the agents be indicted for attempted murder. They weren’t indicted though, they were promoted. At least in Vietnam I had a weapon on me; in the US I was unarmed. They were relentless and what it did was make supporters of mine afraid to help me. But the people who stood by me became stronger. I’m still working with a lot of those people today in the Sierra Club and Veterans for Peace, among other things.
MS: After the investigation a lot of Americans and other vets roundly accused those who testified of treachery. Do you experience anything similar these days when you speak publicly for Veterans for Peace?
All the time. But those people who attack me in the name of the war and the president, their patriotism is based on political partisanship and is no different than the patriotism of those Germans that supported Hitler because he was their leader.
MS: Do you think anything resembling the Winter Solider Investigation could happen with Iraq veterans?
We just had an Iraq veteran join Veterans for Peace a week ago and he said he had to sign documents swearing not to tell what his official job was and that he wasn’t going to tell us what he’d done for fear of going to jail. That’s a lesson the US government did learn in Vietnam i.e. how to shut up the guys coming back. But what will happen eventually is that you’ll get a lot of courageous veterans saying I’m going to tell the American public what I did and I’m going to take that risk of going to jail because that’s the patriotic thing to do. It’s happening now in 2’s and 3’s but not as a large forum. One soldier Adam Kokesh, in the Inactive Reserves, is being prosecuted for wearing his old uniform to a demonstration.
Scott and Sherry Camil with a friend, working for Veterans for Peace.
MS: In Seasoned Veteran you’re wearing a T shirt that reads, “The earth does not belong to you, you belong to the earth.” Has your connection to the environment changed over the years?
As the environment gets worse I have to work a little bit harder. After being an anti-war activist for so long I thought working for the environment would be a lot easier because everyone wants life on the planet to continue. I got involved in the Sierra Club and was really surprised to discover that fighting for the environment is just as hard as fighting against the war. And I think the main reason for this is that those we’re fighting against are motivated by money. The US government is really a fascist government according to the true definition of fascism in that it’s a government that serves the interests of the corporations. Where I live however we’ve put some good people in government at the local and county levels and have enacted campaign finance rules that limit the amount of money big business and corporations can throw into political races.
Locally, among other things, we’re also working for the Clean Air Ordinance Act to try and force coal burning power plants and cement plants to reduce their greenhouse emissions and other toxins.
MS: Any other preoccupations?
There’s the GI Rights Hotline we set up. It’s an1-800 number that veterans anywhere in the world can call for help. Over half the calls come from soldiers that have gone AWOL. There are 4000 people AWOL from the military on any given day. Over 40,000 women and men have deserted from the military since the beginning of this war. They phone to find out what they can do and we tell them what their legal rights are and we help them solve their problems. Some of them are in jail.
MS: What’s one very practical thing you can tell soldiers when they phone in?
We tell them of this catch 22: One of the rules of war that you’re taught in the military, from Nuremberg, is that there comes a time when man’s moral obligation to humanity is above the law; when it is your duty to refuse an unlawful order. But the military doesn’t teach you how to distinguish an unlawful order from a lawful order and what the process is for refusing. While in American military law there’s also a technicality that says all orders are considered to be lawful just by the fact they’re orders. So I tell them how the war in Iraq is an unlawful war, how it violates the constitution and international law and how it is therefore the duty of every soldier to refuse to obey the unlawful order to go. And that we’ll stand behind their refusal.
MS: In Seasoned Veteran you indicate that you were troubled for a long time by your experience of war. Have you made your peace with the past?
I don’t think it’s possible to go through something like Vietnam and not to be scarred by it and for those scars not to effect you always. It’s part of who I am. I try to do the best I can with it.
MS: How did it feel taking Winter Soldier to the Toronto Film Festival last year?
It was so wonderful. I had been all over the world and I had never been to Canada. Two groups in particular were wonderful: The Toronto International Film Festival and Cinematheque Ontario. They treated us like long lost relatives; warm and supportive. We ran into a lot of soldiers that were AWOL and some of them even spoke after the film and asked questions. I can’t wait to come again.
***For another article on the same theme check out: Truthout