Peter Davis’ Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds is probably one of the most captivating documentaries I’ve ever seen. It’s also highly biased and a prime example of how documentaries are never devoid of subjectivity, regardless of intention. Despite Davis’ blatant anti-war stance, Hearts and Minds is powerful, insightful, and brilliantly edited – all factors that led a 1975 Academy Award. The film was controversial when released in theaters and I believe it still is. Aside from its depictions of violence it also features a barrage of violent sentiments and overt objectification of women. Such scenes seem necessary, demonstrating the effects of an imperialist occupation from a multi faceted perspective. Just exhibiting combat violence doesn’t give a full picture of what happened and Davis shows how the war damaged both the Vietnamese and the United States.
The film begins in a Vietnamese village called Hung Dinh. The camera reveals children playing, cutting to a group of women working in a field. A traditional Vietnamese song plays over the tranquil sounds of community activity, presenting a scenic landscape. A moment later a soldier enters from the right, interrupting this idyllic scene and bringing the concept of armed occupation home. The film begins with a brief reprieve which shatters when the military’s presence comes into view. Although the film isn’t an action packed combat experience, this military presence indicates the serene moments are over – and this is only about a minute into the film. It’s a war documentary after all and Davis’ opening scene lulls the viewer into a quiet, peaceful place, only to yank it away immediately. Doing this sets up the rest of the film, a documentary that demonstrates all the horrors of war and the unethical actions undertaken by the United States. Davis’ intention is quite clear from this point: he wants the viewer to experience the horrors of the Vietnam War; using a variety of interviews and familiar footage Davis paints a vibrant portrait of a conflict still affecting the American psyche.
The parallels between America’s current wars and Vietnam are obvious (I’m not the first to point this out). A prolonged conflict, torture, dead civilians – the list goes on and on. One interrogation description – throwing Vietnamese prisoners out of helicopters as motivation – is terrifying and sounds like something the United States military would do in our contemporary conflicts; reminiscing about Abu Ghraib, Lynndie England, and water boarding as prime examples. A co-worker of mine, a Vietnam veteran with four tours of duty under his belt, told me about these tactics a few years ago. I believed it an isolated incident until I saw Hearts and Minds. A story receiving focused attention in Davis’ documentary suggests this form of interrogation/torture was commonplace. It’s not the only instance of brutality the documentary discusses.
A scene with four G.I.’s in a brothel is quite violent and disturbing. The soldiers don’t inflict damage on the prostitutes with their fists or with weapons, but they treat the women as horribly. They’re objectified and prodded like livestock: they mishandle their breasts, push them around like slaves, and speak derogatorily towards them. All around, these young men show no compassion for the women. Their feelings, and ultimately their lives, are meaningless to these men. This begs the question: what caused this?
Is it the prolonged exposure to violence and unfamiliar conditions? Is it ideology, where communists are subhuman and worthy of horrific treatment? I remember reading a statistic in 2005 stating 80% of high school students that started high school in 2001 believe the government should censor dissenting attitudes. Now, I don’t generally rely on statistic and believe this one’s possible spurious, but it does say something about what we’re told in school. In the book Chomsky on Miseducation, the notorious linguist and activist Noam Chomsky argues American public schools are centers for indoctrination. He argues that instead of teaching students to think independently, strict parameters are given and students, in order to fit in, should follow a rigid ideology. Thinking outside this structure is counterproductive to our nation’s agenda. Nowadays, with the variety of information out there (including dissenting voices), this isn’t as simple as it was in the 1950s. However, a line from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas spells out the propaganda doled out in public schools following World War II in three words: “Good government bullshit.”
Many young soldiers in the Vietnam War were raised with the philosophy that capitalism and democracy is good and communism is bad. I’ll be the first to admit that communism doesn’t work; a look at Soviet tactics, including the millions Stalin murdered, proves this. Yet, America – especially America’s imperialism – isn’t much better. Promoting democracy and the American way is responsible for countless killed, not to mention millions suffering because of the system we abide by. Pushing this ideology on generations of American children, combined with the atrocities of combat, creates this attitude-where the enemy isn’t human, where Western principles reign supreme, where, ultimately, might makes right . These soldiers at the brothel display this attitude, which is disgusting. Their behavior, shaped by decades of programming and various environmental influences, is barbaric, yet from their perspective it isn’t. Davis exhibits their behavior, through clever editing (which is ultimately biased), as the result of various influences that create a hardened combatant who has no difficulty treating people like objects.
A litany of interviews throughout the film with various veterans demonstrates how the war changed their attitudes. One soldier, who believed joining the military was the right thing to do (and is shown from the chest up for the majority of the film), eventually relents and admits the war is wrong. Near the end of the film the camera finally pulls back and reveals him in a wheelchair – another casualty of a senseless conflict. Another soldier, an Air Force pilot who bombarded villages many times, claims he never saw his enemy and only after leaving Vietnam did he see his actions as horrific. The film also features other soldiers who believe the war valid. Lieutenant George Coker, a prisoner of war for almost seven years, appears in the film sporadically and delivers lectures on America’s goodness, how the Vietnam War is legitimate, and other such topics. His gung-ho attitude towards America’s involvement in Asia is juxtaposed with scenes of horrifying violence and anti-war voices, once again demonstrating Davis’ position. Even though Davis includes voices from multiple positions his goal isn’t objectivity; instead using these sentiments to paint a thoroughly anti-war narrative.
Watching Hearts and Minds 35 years after its release its difficult seeing how the film worked when originally in theaters. I’m far removed from the war – I wasn’t even born yet – and can only view it from an early 21st century perspective. However, the film does demonstrate how even though the years change numerically and the technology is different, people stay the same. The parallels between the Vietnam War and our current War on Terror or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are uncanny. There are many differences between that time and our own – for instance, the news wasn’t just entertainment (or at least not as forcefully) and dissenting voices received a decent platform (sometimes) –but the one thing I received from Davis’ film is that people and motivations don’t really change. In Garth Ennis’ rendition of Marvel’s famed character The Punisher he has the comic’s protagonist state, “I’m not going back to war so Colt can see another million M-16s; I had enough of that in Vietnam.” I don’t see the difference between the war Frank Castle’s discussing and our current conflicts. Like General Smedley Butler’s sentiments in his short book War is a Racket, “out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”
Here’s the trailer