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Peter Davis' Hearts and Minds

By Jonathan Stack

From Peter Davis' 'Hearts and Minds'. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

I read a front-page article in The New York Times recently that stated that the US is currently buying millions of barrels of oil a year from Iraq. Iraq?!! A trading partner? And I actually thought we were going to war. Isn’t it crazy that it’s okay for the government to help the Iraqi economy, yet I’m not allowed to buy a Cuban cigar? Aren’t the Iraqis the ones who are acquiring weapons of mass destruction and threatening to destroy us because they’re jealous of our freedoms?

There’s only one film that could possibly help put this absurd story into perspective, one I first saw as a teenager: Hearts and Minds, Peter Davis’ extraordinary documentary about the Vietnam War. While watching it reminds me of why I got into this field in the first place (make a positive difference in this world, one story at a time), realizing just how far backwards politically we’ve ventured can be a bit depressing. Even more amazing is the fact that, despite its extremely left wing political perspective, it actually won an Oscar in 1974.

What is most startling is that when Davis made his film, the people he interviewed actually spoke what was on their minds. In the film, for example, General Westmoreland, the commander of US military operations, helps us to make sense of the painful images we witness—schools and homes burned down, men summarily executed in the streets, elderly beaten, a child napalmed or a man kicked in his genitals—by letting us know that Vietnamese “don’t value life like we do.”

When asked, “Why we are in Vietnam?” Secretary of State Rustin’s response is the most wonderful display of smugness ever recorded on film. He’s so incredulous that the question is even asked, that he never gets around to answering it.

The soldiers, recorded in trenches firing weapons against an invisible enemy, cannot possibly make sense of what is at stake, yet they brutally act out their fear and anger on women and children. If there is any greater purpose to the horrors of war, it eludes those who do the dirty work. Yet, just the fact that we’re in there with them makes us understand the painful reality of war in a way that would never be repeated in today’s pre-packaged entertainment reality formats.

Watching the film months after America suffered civilian genocide, I can only imagine that there were many Vietnamese who dreamed of committing their own acts of revenge. The rage of those whose children suffer at the hands of those they do not know—who hate and disrespect them, who kill, torture and maim with impunity and ultimate disregard for the misery they create—is unimaginable to me.

And so Americans, especially those who have suffered the most since September 11, 2001, wonder why we might benefit by watching this film. For while there can never a humanly acceptable explanation for what happened that day, watching Hearts and Minds is the closest I’ve come to understanding our responsibility as a nation for planting the seeds of hatred that exploded last year. Jonathan Stack has just returned from Liberia where he is shooting a documentary on a rebel movement.