There have been hundreds of films and documentaries over the years attempting to explain what went wrong in Vietnam. Hearts and Minds was one of the first and best, and is notable for being released while the conflict was still technically going on (1974).
The date is relevant, as at this stage huge numbers of Americans were still locked into the mindset that Vietnam was a ‘good war’, fought honourably and with the best of intentions. Hearts and Minds played a large role in cracking that myth.
The director, Peter Davies, spoke to many of the people who helped shape the conflict, with the exception of the various Presidents and Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. The whole experience was probably still too raw for McNamara to discuss, but his own take on Vietnam and his mistakes can be seen in the brilliant documentary The Fog of War. Otherwise Westmoreland is featured along with Daniel Ellsberg, Clifford Clark and a host of others. Clifford Clark is interesting as being one of the only political figures willing to put his hands up and admit that he got it 100% wrong. Davies also interviews veterans, as well as soldiers still in the field about their take on the war. Crucially he films the Vietnamese people themselves as they recount stories of bombings, murders and torture by the US and South Vietnamese forces.
The documentary is chock full of memorable moments. For instance General Westmoreland’s jaw dropping statement that, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner…We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity”. This is from a man who fought a brutal war of attrition including dropping thousands of tonnes of bombs on villages filled with women and children. The fact that this was the generally held view amongst many in the US military at the time is both astonishing and horrific.
Later on the father of a dead pilot talks at length about what a great person Richard Nixon is (captions helpfully remind the audience that the interview took place before Nixon resigned due to Watergate). This is contrasted by the evidence that successive US Presidents lied and lied and lied about their military involvement in Vietnam, allowing America to slowly be sucked into the quagmire killing millions in the process.
There is also footage of George Coker, an ex Prisoner of War who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of the Vietnamese for over six years. He’s featured upon his return to America talking to a school assembly of small children telling them that the USA won the war. While he gets a heroes welcome, the documentary rightly points out that the public response to those who were maimed, crippled, or subsequently took an anti-war stance was not so charitable. It ends with a 4th of July parade celebrating America’s independence. The Vietnam veterans who attempt to protest about how they’ve been treated are jeered at and told to go back to Russia. Eventually the police move in to arrest them. As one of the veterans says, “What is this, what the Hell is this? We were the ones who got shot”.
Some would argue that Hearts and Minds is highly partisan as a documentary in that it doesn’t even begin to show the other side of the argument, or selectively uses interviews and quotes to create a particular impression. I’ve got two responses to this. One is that all documentaries do this to a greater or lesser extent. Secondly I’m not sure that documentaries have to show both sides of an argument in a balanced way (or even that there are always two equal and opposite sides of an argument). It’s a bit like attacking Inside Job for being too critical of the finance industry in the run up to the Credit Crunch.
The other notable thing about Hearts and Minds is how the arguments and excuses made by the pro-war side are almost identical to those thirty years later with regards to Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s actually quite sobering to realise that Afghanistan has now been going on significantly longer than Vietnam. Whatever the lessons of the Vietnam War were, I’m not sure that anyone learnt them.
For a dramatisation of the failures in Vietnam I highly recommend the movie Path to War.
Here is the trailer for Hearts and Minds: