Hearts and Minds won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1974 and has just been restored for a theatrical release. It is perfect timing as the new President and Congress think about closing down the war in Iraq and moving on to the challenges of fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is high time for Americans to learn from the past and especially from the terrible slaughter, high cost, and egregious errors of the Vietnam War. This riveting documentary mixes newsreel footage with material shot in Vietnam, America, and France; scenes from Hollywood movies; and interviews with policy makers, civilians, soldiers, and veterans of the war.
Davis begins with an interview with Clark Clifford, the former Secretary of Defense, about the rise of America as a super-power following World War II. An intoxicating lust for control and dominance around the globe led America to military adventures in many countries including Vietnam. Throughout the documentary, the filmmaker emphasizes the U.S. obsession with victory and winning over its opponents. Another theme is the militarization of American culture where generals and soldiers alike stress superiority over enemies. This comes across vividly in derogatory remarks made by General Westmoreland about the Oriental lack of respect for life and in the comments made by Lieutenant George Coker, a former prisoner of war and hero in 1973, who, answers a school girl's question "What does Vietnam look like?" with "If it wasn't for the people, it was very pretty. They just make a mess of everything."
The same philosophy enables pilots to see themselves merely as technicians who are just doing their job, not thinking about the destruction caused by the bombs and napalm they are dropping on innocent civilians. One of them even says that he found these missions "deeply satisfying." Meanwhile, a Vietnamese father mourns the loss of his little daughter, his wife, and other family members killed by a bomb. And a coffin maker in the city is shown working around the clock producing little coffins for dead children.
At one point in Hearts and Minds, Daniel Ellsberg says of the war in Vietnam, "We weren't on the wrong side we were the wrong side." The anti-war demonstrators seen protesting in Washington D.C. would agree. The young man who deserted and gives his reasons would agree. A few Vietnam veterans bitter about the loss of their limbs in the war would agree. The thousands of Vietnamese civilians who lost family members and friends would agree. Now the question comes to the United States again: Can this nation afford to enter another Vietnam in Afghanistan? After viewing Hearts and Minds, there is no sane or moral way of answering yes.