In the almost four decades since U.S. troops withdrew from Vietnam and the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government fell to the communist North Vietnamese, there have been a plethora of explanations for why the United States failed to win that war. Cultural scholars, military historians, and others have spent years trying to explain why, with the involvement of no less than five Presidents during three decades of various levels of involvement, the greatest military superpower in the world was defeated by the smaller and less-equipped army of a third-world nation struggling out from underneath colonialism.
As Peter Davis’ landmark documentary Hearts and Minds shows, the primary problem was that, as Lyndon Johnson said, victory could only be achieved if the U.S. could win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, and that was, in the end, the greatest failure of all. Simply put, the U.S. could never fully justify its involvement in Vietnam, particularly to the civilians whose world was turned upside down in the name of anti-communism. Or, as one person in the film puts it, we weren’t on the wrong side, we were the wrong side.
Originally released in 1975, a year after U.S. troops had finally been pulled from Vietnam, Hearts and Minds was a deeply controversial film, particularly when it won that year’s Oscar for Best Documentary. Rather than looking at the war solely from the U.S. point of view, Davis looked from both sides, interviewing a vast range of people, all of whom had been involved in the war in one way or another—soldiers, generals, military advisors, politicians, and, most importantly, the Vietnamese people whose hearts and minds were at the epicenter of the conflict. Davis bookends the film with scenes that show some form of disruption on both sides, opening with shots in a small Vietnamese village whose idyll is disrupted by troops marching through and ending with footage of a U.S. parade temporarily disturbed by Vietnam veterans protesting their lack of jobs.
However, Davis avoids a simple us/them dichotomy, showing how there were both Americans and Vietnamese who were for and against the war. Just as there were many U.S. citizens protesting their government’s actions, there were Vietnamese who profited from the war and didn’t want it to end. And, of course, some people changed their positions over time, evidenced most clearly by several veteran soldiers whose enthusiasm for their job slowly soured into regret.
On the whole, though, it is striking just how stark the difference was between how U.S. officials and ordinary Vietnamese civilians viewed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and Davis makes expert use of visual juxtaposition to show how the two sides had virtually no chance of finding common ground. While the U.S. politicians and military brass talk of strategic targets and the need to limit the spread of communism, Vietnamese peasants lament the destruction of their villages and croplands, the deaths of their family members, and the painful, desolate tasks of building coffins and digging graves. Probably the most striking and sickening moment in the film is when General William Westmoreland declares in all confidence that the Oriental simply doesn’t put the same high price on life that the Westerner does, and Davis then cuts to a Vietnamese man stricken with grief because his children have been killed by a U.S. bomb. In that simple juxtaposition, Davis exposes both the deep-seated xenophobia that fueled much of the war and the ultimate meaninglessness of military terms like “collateral damage.”
Davis’ camera is trained most often on U.S. soldiers who had returned from the war and were not happy about what they had done. Some of them were paralyzed, others were just resentful at the thought of what war had forced them to do. It is clear that Davis is using their testimony as a way to reach out beyond those who were already against the war in Vietnam at that point, to offer firsthand testimony of just how unconscionable much of war is in general, but particularly one with such vague and unsupportable aims.
Davis does focus on one soldier who doesn’t have the slightest hint of remorse—Lt. George Coker, who spent seven years as a prisoner of war and declares that he is willing to go back if asked. He is shown returning to his hometown amid parades and celebration and later giving a deeply xenophobic speech to schoolchildren about how beautiful Vietnam would be if it weren’t for the people there. Yet, having endured what he did, it is hard not to feel sympathy for him, which makes his cruelest comments all the more ambivalent, as they have the cadence of something programmed, not felt.
Viewed almost 40 years after it originally debuted at the Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim, Hearts and Minds has not lost its power to provoke and challenge our conventional understanding of patriotism and the necessity of war. It is, no doubt, a deeply antiwar film, although it doesn’t point fingers and lay blame in simplistic fashion. Davis wisely realizes that the causes of the Vietnam War and its prolongation over three decades are far too complex to cover in 112 minutes. Instead, as the title suggests, he focuses on the people, the human beings whose lives were forever altered by that terrible moment in history, regardless of which side of the world on which they live.
Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (4)
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