By Phil Hall | March 20, 2009

“Hearts and Minds,” Peter Davis’ 1974 Academy Award-winning documentary on the Vietnam War, is returning to theatrical release in a digitally restored and remastered edition. If you never saw this film, please try to locate a theater where it is playing. Quite simply, this is one of the greatest non-fiction films ever made.

“Hearts and Minds” is a cold shock to the system – a detailed dissection of how the U.S. government, over the course of five very different administrations, repeatedly lied to Americans and put U.S. troops in harm’s way to fight a war that had no moral or political purpose whatsoever. The film also provides evidence of the often-shocking ignorance that many Americans had in regard to the reasons for being involved in Vietnam – including frank admissions by some soldiers on the battlefield that they had no idea who the enemy was or why the war was raging.

One has to be clear that this is not a 100% objective film – abuses by the North Vietnamese are not documented, and the captivity faced by a U.S. P.O.W. who is profiled in the film is not explored. But that lapse does not excuse the blatant falsehoods and shameless arrogance that went into the U.S. planning of the war, nor does it condone clearly documented problems that arose in the execution of those strategies.

“Hearts and Minds” is an ironic title, given that so few Americans associated with the war seemed to display anything resembling compassion or intelligence. The most shocking moment is the unapologetic statement by Gen. William Westmoreland that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” This follows a highly emotional scene where the family of a slain Vietnamese soldier tearfully mourns over his coffin.

There are other interview in which U.S. Air Force pilots casually acknowledge they never thought twice about the people in the Vietnamese villages they were bombing. Davis goes to those villages and finds people whose loved ones were killed and whose homes were destroyed. Footage of Vietnamese women traveling down roads carrying children with skin burned off by napalm bombing provides evidence of the devastation brought on civilians. (Included here is the full footage of the iconic photograph of nine-year-old Phan Thi: Kim Phúc running naked after being burned in a Vietnam Air Force napalm attack).

From an intellectual standpoint, “Hearts and Minds” is a harsh slap at how some Americans considered the war. Average Americans are interviewed, but cannot identify the reasons for the conflict – one trucker actually states the U.S. is backing North Vietnam. George Coker, the aforementioned P.O.W., actually tells a school audience that the U.S. won the war! Coker also comments on Vietnam with this deathless comment: “If it weren’t for the people, it would be a beautiful country.” Comments by President Nixon and Bob Hope at a White House dinner honoring returned P.O.W.s are amazing in their tactless crassness.

The film also tracks down several veterans – some are physically disabled – who speak bitterly of realizing too late about the implications of what they did in Vietnam. Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who was responsible for making “The Pentagon Papers” public, Sen. J. William Fulbright and former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford speak at length at how they slowly came to realize the lies, deceptions and twisted logic that pushed the war along. Army deserter Edward Sowders is also here, and his taboo presence offers a disturbing view into the underground movement of AWOL military personnel who rebelled against the system.

It is difficult not to watch “Hearts and Minds” without drawing parallels between Vietnam and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be curious to see how contemporary American moviegoers view a film that is clearly not gung-ho in its appreciation of military might. The film was polarizing in its day, and I assume it will be equally divisive now.

Whether it is viewed as a time capsule from a distant and troubled past or as a preview of things to come, “Hearts and Minds” represents a troubling journey into a nightmare of America’s own creation. It is impossible to walk away from the film without being devastated.

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