Engaging the Battle for ‘Hearts and Minds’

For the years during the war and for almost a decade after, Vietnam remained an almost untouched subject in the American popular media. Extensive television coverage of men fighting in the bush provided a collective experience accompanied by newscasters’ observations, but not until the late in the 1970s did memoirs, novels, and films begin to delve deeper into the soldiers’, and the nation’s, experiences. Then came print releases of Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July. East-setting sun of John Wayne’s The Green Berets and the satire of Robert Altman’s MASH aside, Hollywood slowly but surely began to address the war with such films as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home.

A theme running through many of these works is the credible voice of the soldier’s experience. By having been there, the soldier gains an authority not accessible to those who stayed in “the world,” to those who fought against American forces, or to those victimized by those forces. But this plethora of voices provides but one perspective on the horrors that occurred, and while these voices work toward one understanding, there are still many other uncertainties to contend with.

Peter Davis’s documentary Hearts and Minds was released in 1975 to much controversy after threats of lawsuits and changes in distributors. With the film, Davis, who formerly worked at CBS on the The Selling of the Pentagon, addresses three questions: “Why did we go to Vietnam?”, “What did we do there?”, and “What did the doing do to us?” Davis interviews American political leaders, American military members, Vietnamese leaders, and Vietnamese civilians to demonstrate the ideologies at work during the war, their application, and their effects on the tiny country and its venerable people. The film offers no definite answers, but it raised issues at a time when the American public was not quite ready to deal with them.

The title comes from a statement made by Lyndon B. Johnson: “[T]he ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there.” This statement establishes the war’s two fronts. One front is the actual combat between military forces in the name of suppressing or advancing a Communist regime. The other front is more local, more personal – it centers on the attempts to win Vietnamese citizens’ support to rally against the Vietcong. But this simple dichotomy only hints at the underlying complexities, and here is where Davis’s film begins its work.

Hearts and Minds opens with an idyllic scene of the Hung Dinh village, located northwest of Saigon. No voiceover explains the image; only a small title notes the location. Villagers work in the lush, green fields and walk among the small homes. Traditional Vietnamese music on the soundtrack adds to the calm. The shots and music create the illusion of peace – that is, until an armed American solider walks by.

Interviews, news and newsreel footage, and film clips introduce the Cold War mentality underlying U.S. politicians’ motivations for fighting in Vietnam. Much of this thinking relates to America’s growth as an international force after World War II, its vision of freedom for all, and its fear of Communist governments and their growing power. America’s involvement in Vietnam began in the 1950s when the United States financed 78 percent of the French war. French leader Georges Bidault reveals that the United States offered him two atomic bombs to help end the war, a fact never revealed in the popular press. Clark Clifford, aide to the president 1948-1950, explains the involvement as a sense of power and a vision of progress, one that ostensibly extends to all nations. Daniel Ellsberg, a former aide to the Defense Department, notes how the “covert aggression view” helped put the Vietnam War in context of World War II thinking, thus making it more justifiable to the military and to the public. In an interview with famed economist Walt Rostow, Davis, off-camera, asks, “Why do they need us?” Stuttering in surprise, Rostow first replies, “Because they were subject to, uh, military attack from the outside,” and after more stuttering, he asks, “Are you really asking me this goddamn silly question?” With these early interviews, Davis questions the certainty of purpose and intentions in the conflict.

Interviews with former military personnel provide another perspective on the war. While politicians and policymakers remained in “the world,” the military served “in country,” to use period jargon. Some enjoyed the thrill of combat, some saw duty as a job, and others fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Captain Randy Floyd of Oklahoma talks about flying planes for 98 bombing missions; shots of bombs being loaded and falling, and planes taking off and landing, illustrate his comments. “It was very clean,” he says. Stan Holder, a Native American from Arizona, talks about learning the traditions of warriors in his heritage and how he saw the Marines as a way of becoming a warrior. Robert Muller shares his thrill of shooting the enemy. Former Sergeant William Marshall of Detroit talks about the napalm drops and how he used a dead body to shield himself from the poison; of 35 men, he is the only one to have survived. Edward Sowders requests amnesty during Congressional hearings about dealing with those who fled the draft.

A brief sequence reveals the soldiers’ lives both off and on the field. Soldiers wander the Saigon streets, bartering for pictures and prostitutes. Children follow them around begging for money. Two men engage with prostitutes and discuss their women throughout. On the field solders use lighters to torch a straw roof while jets fly overhead and villagers huddle together in fear. When on the front line and asked his opinion, one anonymous soldier replies, “This whole thing stinks.”

Lt. George Coker, a prisoner of war from 1966-1973, displays an unshakable patriotism as he delivers several speeches throughout the film. The first speech is in honor of his homecoming to Linden, New Jersey; the town welcomes him with a parade, a band, and a red carpet. He talks to a women’s group about how the training for war begins at home; shot of a football game and its pregame pep talk help reinforce how the soldier thinking begins early. He also talks to a group of young Catholic school students. One student asks him, “What did Vietnam look like?” Coker replies, “Well, if it wasn’t for the people, it was very pretty. The people over there are very backward and very primitive, and they just make a mess out of everything.”

Davis also includes the Vietnamese perspective on the war and its effects. Two older Vietnamese sisters, Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu, lost their other sister during a bombing raid, and Vo Thi Tu also lost her home. As Vo Thi Tu points to her ruined house, she metaphorically says, “It’s like a bird and its nest. The way things are with the house in the rubble, the bird comes home and finds no nest.” Vu Duc Vinh, an anguished father, lost both his son and his daughter in a bombing mission. He demands to know, “What have I done to Nixon so that he comes here to bomb my country?”

Napalm did almost as much damage as the bombing, and children suffered and died from its application. “The girl in the picture,” 9-year-old Kim Phuc, was severely burned it, and a photographer captured her running and screaming with other frightened members of her village. Instead of being frozen in time, Davis’s moving image fully reveals the terror on her face. Another woman carries a young boy, who has patches of charred flesh hanging off his heels. Mui Duc Giang builds coffins for the children dying from napalm and from bombs; he had lost seven children of his own.

The Vietnamese people also endured gunshots and torture. In one particularly disturbing scene a suspected Vietcong stands with his hands bound; as another man walks by, he shoots the prisoner in the head. The body falls over and blood spurts from the fatal wound. Army Intelligence Officer Barton Osborn relates an anecdote about two Vietnamese men being tortured for information and one of them being thrown out of a helicopter (Sergeant George Trendell denies the veracity of the story).

Vietnamese officials and religious figures explain their people’s perspectives on the war and the Americans. Father Chan Tin explains, “The people of North Vietnam and South Vietnam fight only for freedom, independence, and national unity.” Thich Lieu Minh, a Buddhist monk, denies that his people are the savages outsiders perceive them to be. He, too, supports the pride in his nation: “Let me respectfully tell the American people that this is their dirtiest and longest war. The Vietnamese fight only in self-defense.” It is interesting to see the representation of the two religions – the Catholicism brought with the colonizers, the French, and the traditional Buddhism – both agreeing with what their country wants.

Americans also meddled in Vietnamese politics. Ho Chi Minh wrote seven letters to the United States government seeking its help, and he visited America in 1957, only to be dead in 1962. General Nguyen Khanh, president of South Vietnam in 1964-65, plays a tape of General Maxwell Taylor, U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam in 1964-65, asking him to resign. Nguyen did and lived in exile in France.

For the most part Davis’s style remains unobtrusive, but occasionally the camera and editing surprise us. Throughout the interviews with the veterans, Davis uses close-ups to focus on their faces. While Robert Muller talks about a battle, the camera cuts from a close-up to a three-quarter shot, which reveals for the first time that Muller sits in a wheelchair. A slow pan from his feet up shows his immobile legs, forcing us to contemplate his loss. The camera pulls back to reveal that the animated William Marshall also lost his arm.

Lingering close-ups prove just as revealing. As Randy Floyd comments that Americans never have seen such atrocities, he pauses, sighing and wiping his eyes; the camera keeps him in a tight frame. Davis, again off-camera, allows him a moment or two of silence before asking, “Do you think we’ve learned anything from all this?” Floyd replies, “I think we’re trying not to.” Another longer shot of Vo Thi Hue and Vo Thi Tu forces us to watch them cry while trying to cope with their grief.

Davis’s style and politics manifest themselves particularly well in a sequence near the film’s end. At the numerous graves at the Nation Cemetery in South Vietnam, a child cries pitifully while a woman tries to crawl into a grave. General William Westmoreland comments, “Well, the Orient doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient.” A wailing child and the general’s words echo hauntingly.

Hearts and Minds shows how the United States failed to win over the hearts and minds of not only the Vietnamese people, but also numerous Americans, including former soldiers and politicians. The film shows the “enemy” as human, as people, not faceless strangers. It movingly shows how war destroys lives and hopes, on both sides, and at what price? Feelings about the Vietnam War today are mixed and strong, and, looking back today, still unresolved.

10 Other Documentaries about the Vietnam War to Check Out

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War begins this week, though the 18-hour series is far from the first about the subject. Unlike Hollywood’s almost 15-year delay, documentary makers started trying to make sense of the war early on.

The Vietnam War has been a cultural touchstone for generations, though it resonates most with the baby boomers who served and protested and with generation X who lost family members and friends or grew up with survivors who struggled afterward.

The war long has been held up as a marker of American failure. George Bush declared in a speech before actions in Iraq and Kuwait, “I’ve told the American people before that this will not be another Vietnam, and I repeat this here tonight.” Similar refrains occurred at the start of military actions following 9/11, as each war invited armchair comparisons. Check out Robert Brigham’s book Is Iraq Another Vietnam for an in-depth discussion.

Starting about 1978, Hollywood’s first films showed the war as chaotic insanity. In his book Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second, Jeremy Devine cites the four horsemen — The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans, Coming Home, and The Deerhunter — as blazing the trail for bringing the war to the big screen. But unlike World War II films, Hollywood films about the Vietnam War focused on the jungle, the combat, and the overall experience. In production and representation, Apocalypse Now best captures all of these themes, though the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse provides further depth than the usual behind-the-scenes production documentaries.

PBS aired a series titled Vietnam: A Television History. Broadcast in 1983 as part of the American Experience series, the 13 episodes provided a chronology of events that was well received. In 1997, PBS rebroadcast the series, this time omitting episode 2 (“The First Vietnam War”) and episode 13 (“Legacies”). The later released DVD series also excluded these episodes. These omissions drew criticism for their tampering with history, and some criticisms went so far as to call it “censorship.”

Here are 10 documentaries about the Vietnam War and its aftershocks to explore if you seek more information beyond the upcoming Burns and Novick film. Even though it covers an immense variety of perspectives, no single documentary — even at 18 hours — can give voice to everyone.

1. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

A Vietnamese man who lost his family during a bombing angrily protests the situation and its futility in Hearts and Minds.
Hearts and Minds is harrowing in its emotion and scathing in its critique. Davis juxtaposes official voices from the U.S. government with those who suffered from their decisions. One sequence features a Vietnamese funeral with families burying multiple dead, and wailing survivors, devastated with grief, attempt to climb into the graves with them. The scene is intercut with comments from General William Westmoreland, who says, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Hearts and Minds struggled for distribution, particularly after former National Security Advisor Walt Rostow attempted to stop its release. Hearts and Minds won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

2. Daughter from Danang (Gail Dolgin and Vincente Franco, 2002)

In April 1975, more than 10,000 children were evacuated from Vietnam. The children were adopted around the world, including the United States. While many of the children were orphans, some, particularly biracial children with American fathers and Vietnamese mothers, were given up by their families. Daughter from Danang tells the story of Heidi Bub (Mai Thi Hiep), who was adopted and raised in Tennessee by a mother who minimized Heidi’s Vietnamese identity. As an adult Heidi receives an opportunity to return to Vietnam and reunite with her biological family. The cameras follow her to the reunion and her return to her own husband and children in Tennessee. The film makes for an interesting meditation on American identity.

3. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (Errol Morris, 2003)

If you read any of Robert McNamara’s books, you know he is a highly intelligent and accomplished man. The former U.S. Secretary of Defense wrote In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, wherein he examines the war’s failings. For The Fog of War, McNamara interviewed with director Errol Morris for 20 hours, which was edited down to two hours along with archival materials. Morris won his first Best Documentary Feature Oscar with this film. The Unknown Known, with Donald Rumsfeld, follows a similar pattern.

4. In the Year of the Pig (Emile de Antonio, 1968)

Cover art image for Emile de Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig.
Emile de Antonio remains sadly underappreciated or and relatively unknown in today’s documentary popular culture. de Antonio specialized in documentaries about political issues. The Year of the Pig is a compilation film that brought together footage from interviews and archives to show the war’s origins and to critique them as well.

5. Sad Song of Yellow Skin (Michael Rubbo, 1970)

While many documentaries focus on the battlefield and the soldiers, Sad Song of Yellow Skin shows the people affected by the war off the frontlines. In particular, Michael Rubbo observes street children in Saigon, and his voiceover offers his personal commentary and observations on what he witnesses there. This film was made for the National Film Board of Canada.

6. Be Good, Smile Pretty (Tracy Droz Tragos, 2003)

Cover art from Tracy Droz Tragos’s Be Good, Smile Pretty.
Tracy Droz Tragos was three months old when her father died in an ambush during the Vietnam War. Searching online for her father’s name many years later, she found a narrative (perhaps this one) about the circumstances surrounding his death. That search and the story inspired her to seek more information about the father she knew so little about. Starting the conversation with her mother in Be Good, Smile Pretty, Droz Tragos creates a deeply personal documentary in learning more about him and about the soldiers who served with him.

7. Sir! No Sir! (David Zeiger, 2005)

While we most often think of war protestors as those who remained outside the military,
Sir! No Sir! examines the role of protest and subversion among military personnel during the Vietnam War. It uncovers the overlooked GI Movement, which brought the peace demonstrations to within the military. Movement members produced newspapers, organized protests, distributed leaflets, and engaged other activities. This documentary weaves interviews with print and video archives to create a compelling story.

8. Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (Bill Couturié, 1987)

Also a book, Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam uses personal letters from American soldiers and archival materials to create an on-the-ground view of the war. Celebrities such as Robert De Niro, Robert Downey Jr., and Michael J. Fox contributed their voices to the project.

9. The Anderson Platoon (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1967)

The Anderson Platoon offers the cinematic experience of an embedded filmmaker. Pierre Schoendoerffer joined the 1st Calvary Division in 1966 and stayed with them in September and October of that year. He captured the raw events of these soldiers’ experiences, including reconnaissances, battles, and deaths, not to mention their raw fears and hopes as well. Named for platoon leader Captain Joseph B. Anderson Jr., the documentary went on to win the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 1967.

10. Vietnam, Long Time Coming (Jerry Blumenthal, Peter Gilbert, and Gordon Quinn, 1998)

An athlete rests during Vietnam, Long Time Coming.
Vietnam, Long Time Coming follows a team of cyclists who enter a 16-day, 1,100-mile bike ride through Vietnam, an event organized by World TEAM (The Exceptional Athlete Matters). Veterans throughout the United States and Vietnam participated, among them many participants with differing ability levels such as blindness and missing limbs, but all athletes nonetheless. The ride provides some healing for veterans from both sides of the war as they ride together throughout the Vietnam countryside.