Have Our ‘Hearts and Minds’ Really Changed?

There are lessons aplenty about Vietnam in Hearts and Minds—it's a shame we still haven’t learned them.

The 1954 French defeat at Dien Bien Phu rid Vietnam “of foreign oppression”, Father Chan Tin says—in French. It’s one of many scenes that capture the complexities of the Vietnam War in Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis’s Academy Award–winning 1974 documentary, just released in a Blu-ray/DVD dual-format edition by the Criterion Collection.

Davis’s film is relentlessly thorough. He filmed American, Vietnamese, and French subjects: advisors, politicians, businessmen, children, fathers, mothers, siblings, officers, enlisted men, hawks, doves, prostitutes, clergy, monks, veterans, pilots, infantrymen, antiwar activists, Revolutionary War re-enactors, high school athletes and cheerleaders, students, people on the street, prisoners of war, deserters, and political prisoners. If the original feature isn’t enough, Criterion has compiled an additional two hours of footage.

Early on, the director establishes the pervasiveness of the belief that the U.S. was fighting a just, winnable war to prevent the spread of communism. This idea was promulgated by five U.S. presidents, spanning Truman to Nixon, and motivated many of the young men who were drafted or who signed up to fight.

Over the course of Hearts and Minds, Davis shows how that belief unraveled for many. “The history of conflict among nations does not record another such lengthy, and consistent chronicle of error as we have shown in Vietnam”, Robert Kennedy says in archival footage. Clark Clifford, the United States Secretary of Defense from 1968–69, admits that after learning the details of how the war was being waged and how the low odds of defeating the Vietnamese were, “My thinking had undergone a very substantial revolution. I have no hesitancy whatsoever in saying, ‘I could not have been more wrong in my attitude toward Vietnam.’”

Captain Randy Floyd, who flew 98 bombing missions, talks about how detached he was from the destruction his actions created. “I was a technician”, he says. Now that he’s a civilian, he’s haunted by the human suffering caused by the bombs and napalm he and his fellow soldiers dropped on the Vietnamese. Robert Muller, paralyzed in battle, recalls his feelings of anger and disgust when he lay wounded and felt he was dying for nothing, and laments the loss of the patriotism and pride he felt as a Marine recruit.

Davis contrasts those who feel remorse and shame about their actions in the war with those who remain unrepentant, among them presidential advisor Walt Rostow and pilot Lt. George Coker, a prisoner of war from 1966 to 1973.

Rostow is belligerent, defensive, and incoherent. Coker, as Davis follows him for several speaking engagements, is calm and deliberate. He presents what amounts to the master narrative of a warrior culture, a companion to the anticommunist trope. His success as a pilot and his ability to endure his long imprisonment, he says, derived from his upbringing and schooling. Teachers, coaches, and mothers made him what he is. Davis’s inclusion of footage from a high school football game in Niles, Ohio, makes explicit Coker’s and others’ suggestion that obedient, fierce athletes make obedient, fierce soldiers.

Coker also refers to the Vietnamese as “gooks” and, in response to a child’s question about what the country is like, says it would be pretty “if it wasn’t for the people”. Davis’s treatment of Coker is telling. He doesn’t single out his racist comments in any way; they emerge in the course of his discourse. The point is clear if we want to get it: in order to buy into the sports-as-battle-preparation and “with your shield or on it” view of women as inculcators of cultural values and guardians of the masculine ideal, you have to objectify the enemy. That is, in order for there to be an “us”, there has to be a “them”.

Half of Hearts and Minds is devoted to depicting the effects of the conflict on “them”: the people of North and South Vietnam, a subject that historian Robert K. Brigham, in an essay written for the booklet accompanying the release, says Americans had little familiarity with before the release of Davis’s film.

It’s in the juxtaposition of how the war affected citizens of each country that Hearts and Minds generates many of its most powerful moments. The late film critic Judith Crist, in her essay written for Criterion’s 2002 DVD release, calls this Davis’s “evenhandedness in counterpointing the American and the Vietnamese experience”.

In the film’s climactic sequence, Vu Duc Vinh stands in front of the remains of his home, destroyed by the bomb that also killed his three-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter. “My daughter died right here”, he says, weeping. “She was feeding the pigs. She was so sweet. She is dead. The pigs are alive… I’ll give you my daughter’s beautiful shirt. Take it back to the United States. Tell them what happened here. My daughter is dead. She will never wear this shirt again. Throw this shirt in Nixon’s face. Tell him she was only a little schoolgirl”.

Scenes of families mourning Vietnamese soldiers killed in action follow the already traumatically set scene. Davis then cuts to William Westmoreland, commanding general in Vietnam, 1964–68, who observes: “Well, the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient”.

There are no extras on the discs, aside from deleted footage; Criterion instead has opted to fill the booklet with more essays than is typical for their releases: four, in addition to Brigham and Crist. The result is a thorough collection of historical and cinematic analysis that explicates the structure and reception of Hearts and Minds as well as the context for and trajectory of the war.

In “Vietnam and Memory”, written for The Nation in 2000 and updated for Criterion, Davis discusses how the war affected the U.S. and also acknowledges how his own views changed. He came to realize that the lack of freedom under communism is innate, not a historical feature of specific, failed cases. He also concluded that communism wasn’t a threat to our way of life.

“A Historical Context”, by historian George C. Herring, written for the 2002 DVD release and updated for this one, details the history of the war and how it fits into post–World War II American history. This essay includes some sobering statistics: for example, he reports that over the course of the war “the United States sprayed more than 100 million pounds of such chemicals as Agent Orange over millions of acres of forest, destroying an estimated one-half of South Vietnam’s timberlands and exacting horrendous human and ecological costs”.

In “Moving the People”, historian Ngo Vinh Long summarizes the Vietnamese experience of the war and discusses reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam in the years since the war ended.

Muller, who became an activist after the war and who has advocated for veterans and worked to ban land mines, has a brief afterword on the back cover. He concludes: “The film has stood the test of time and reminds us that what happened during the Vietnam War is not as far removed from our lives today as we may like to fool ourselves into thinking”.

RATING 7 / 10
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