Winner of an Academy Award in 1975 for best feature-length documentary, Peter Davis’ anti-Vietnam war classic Hearts and Minds still has the power to outrage and dismay. The film has been restored — the color components were beginning to seriously deteriorate — and it arrives during a period when we’re in the mire of yet another ill-advised and divisive war. In fact, it is divisiveness more than logistics or motives that links Vietnam to Iraq, and Hearts and Minds is as much about America at war with itself as it is about the tragedy of a foreign misadventure.
Running less than two hours, the film only has time to give a glimpse of Vietnam’s history but makes the point that after World War II, the United States was more interested in helping France protect its colonial interests than in abetting the liberation of a small Asian country. That interest was further fueled by the Cold War’s now-discredited “Domino Theory,” the idea that if Vietnam were to become a communist country, it would begin a series of Red conquests that would spread all the way to Australia.
So delusion is the backdrop. A scene of wailing mourners at a Vietnamese funeral is followed by one of General Westmoreland making his infamous observation that “Orientals” don’t place the same value on human life that we Westerners do. Various politicians and their advisory deep thinkers seem to be under the impression that we’re winning the war. A returning vet lecturing a group of elementary students seems to be under the impression that we’ve actually won the war.
The film also brings up some homegrown psychic oddities that seem to make us all the more susceptible to war psychosis. Racism, as American as apple pie, is shown to be an effective tool
in dehumanizing the enemy. Football, a healthy alternative to murdering for territorial gain, is shown to be an effective early training ground for the more lethal aspects of the warrior mentality (and if this seems far-fetched, recall the Duke of Wellington’s assertion that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”).
Watching amputee soldiers who were once gung-ho and now have second thoughts, we’re reminded that, then as now, the troops are abused twice: first by the government and then by the pro-war propagandists back home, where they’re used as a trump card to quell dissent. In a divisive war, as opposed to a relatively popular one like World War II, the most vitriolic name-calling is aimed not at the declared enemy but at fellow Americans. It’s not as important that we win the war, whatever that means, as it is that you agree with me or shut up or go away or just die.
Watching Hearts and Minds, made 30 years ago, one thinks that major lessons would have been learned, that the reputation of certain bad ideas would have been damaged beyond repair. But films like this, which should be shown in schools across the country, are rarely seen. And so the toothpaste is just that much more easily put back into the tube, ready for another squeezing.
Showing at 7:30 p.m., Monday, March 14, at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237).
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.