Hearts and Minds – A Must to Avoid

Newsweek had a fawning interview in its April 6 issue with Peter Davis, the director and co-producer of the 1975 documentary, Hearts and Minds, on the occasion of its recent DVD re-issue. This, to my way of thinking, is not a good thing. The virulently anti-Vietnam War documentary also is a prime example of feeble-thinking Vietnam veteran bashing, of what we have come to call blaming the warrior for the war.

I expressed those views in my review of Hearts and Minds, which appeared in the July 1991 of The VVA Veteran, when the film was released on what now seems like an ancient form of technology, the videocassette. Here’s what I said (and what I still feel) about that film:

HEARTS AND MINDS REDUX

When the troubling documentary Hearts and Minds came out in 1974, I was a fledgling 29-year-old journalist laboring away at an entry-level job at a big Washington, D.C., news organization. I was also the only Vietnam veteran on the staff.

In those days Vietnam veterans were not exactly media darlings. We were routinely stereotyped with unflattering articles in newspapers and on TV news shows and portrayed as violent psychotics every week on Kojak and other TV cop shows. So, like most vets, I pretty much kept quiet about my Vietnam experiences.

Still, most of my co-workers knew I was a veteran and that I’d been a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I remember one of my work buddies asking what I thought of the ultra anti-war Hearts and Minds. I also remember what I replied: “I haven’t seen it. I don’t want to see it. I don’t need to see it.” Or words to that effect.

Despite my personal boycott of Hearts and Minds, the film — which was produced by Bert Schneider and Peter Davis and directed by Davis — made a fairly good showing for itself. The critics generally were kind, the box office was decent, and it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature of 1974. Hearts and Minds later ran on cable and was released on video. But a few years ago it went out of print. This spring [1991] Hearts and Minds was reissued on video, and I finally got around to watching it.

These days my thinking about the war and its veterans has changed. And so has the American media’s. I’m no longer reticent about standing up and saying I’m a Vietnam veteran. And I try to see every Vietnam film and read as many new books as I can about the war.

A few years ago the media basically woke up to the fact that the overwhelming majority of Vietnam veterans are functioning members of society and basically stopped stereotyping us as maladjusted basketcases. Most hawkish Americans, who looked at Vietnam vets as whining losers, and most doves, who saw us as naive pawns of the U.S. military-industrial complex, have “forgiven” us. Now — especially in the wake of the Persian Gulf War — it’s unfashionable to bash Vietnam vets.

But it was sort of the thing to do in 1974. And that’s what’s troubling about watching Hearts and Minds in 1991. There’s some great stuff in the film, but Hearts and Minds gets an F minus for its portrayal of vets. Although it has no narrator, Hearts and Minds uses a nearly two-hour barrage of film clips and interviews to put forward the message that the United States had no business being in Vietnam and that everyone involved in the war has blood on his or her hands.

Davis’s accomplished filmmaking gets credit for delivering that message clearly. The problem is that his message is oversimplified to the extreme. It’s based on some truths, some half-truths and many sins of omission.

Yes, it is an historical fact, as Davis (above) shows, that American policy after World War II underwrote the French war to keep its Indochinese colonies. Yes, Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy used the bankrupt domino theory to justify American intervention. Yes, Presidents Johnson and Nixon misled, if not lied to, the American people about their aims in Vietnam. Yes, the American military brass never understood the nature of the enemy or the war it was fighting and came up with fatally flawed tactics and strategy. And, yes, the South Vietnamese government and military were generally corrupt, brutally authoritarian and unloved by most of the population.

All of this Davis shows very well through old TV film clips, newsreels and interviews with eyewitnesses such as Daniel Ellsberg, Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow and Gen. William Westmoreland. He also shows scene after scene of instances of American and South Vietnamese brutality in the war zone. And he didn’t make that stuff up. There’s no denying that plenty of people on our side beat prisoners, torched hootches, dropped napalm and other types of unfriendly ordnance on innocent civilians and consorted with prostitutes.

But in this case Davis willfully neglects to tell the entire story. He virtually ignores anything showing Americans and South Vietnamese in a positive light. And you won’t find one frame even hinting that the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong were anything but heroic fighters whose only goal was national unification. His version of the war is one in which American GIs raped and pillaged innocent villagers, while an unseen enemy went about heroically defending its homeland against a genocidal outside aggressor. Anyone who set foot in the war zone or who has objectively studied the situation knows that is an incomplete, false picture.

Then there’s the thorny issue of Davis’s treatment of veterans. His hero among the vets is a deserter who goes public by telling his tale to a congressional committee. His villains are a series of enlisted men and officers up to no good on the ground in Vietnam and, back home, a former POW, Navy Lt. George Coker, who spouts racist absurdities and super-patriotic bromides.

In between are VVA’s founder and former president Bobby Muller (complete with a full head of bushy brown hair) talking about how he was severely wounded and his feelings of bitterness, and former pilot Randy Floyd breaking down after telling about how he dropped anti-personnel bombs.

Sorry, but Davis’s handling of vets doesn’t wash. Granted there’s no such thing as a “typical” Vietnam veteran. But the vets he choose to highlight basically make it appear as if we were all either racist killers or apologizing wimps. We all know that that’s not true and that the truth is much, much more complex.

In that regard, I agree with David Grosser, who teaches in the American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and who has criticized Hearts and Minds for Davis’s black-and-white treatment of those who took part in the war.

“In assessing responsibility for the war,” Grosser writes in an essay in the book From Hanoi to Hollywood, “Davis suggests that there is something malignant, racist, and warlike in American culture that infected the population as a whole and ultimately ’caused’ the war.” In other words, Davis puts a large share of the blame for the war on the warriors. That’s muddle-headed early seventies thinking, and it happens to be just plain wrong.

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Posted on April 5th 2009 in Documentaries

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