Hearts and Minds continued...

 

 

     

Despite the gravity of the offer, the exchange comes off as tragicomical—though the reality is deeply troubling and sobering—as we watch bumbling diplomats attempt to decide the fate of an indigenous people caught up in what was yet another reconquest of their homeland by a colonial power whom the United States was financing, and soon after that, of course, the United States itself, with its massive war machine. In one of the more troubling scenes with General Westmoreland, he states that Vietnam was “like a child”—clearly not one that needed to be raised, or guided or rescued, let alone allowed its sovereignty, but bombed. He claimed that “the Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does the Westerner.”

 

The patronizing arrogance of the General's words can hardly be attributed to any supposedly biased direction or editing on Davis's part. Like the atrocities committed against innocent civilians, such declarations have their own noxious power. No doubt, without the U.S.'s presence in Vietnam, the conflict would have produced atrocities and injustices of a different kind. But as in all of our imperial wars, our involvement always made things far worse. Randy Floyd, a bombardier who had converted his initial patriotism into experienced insight, stated pragmatically near the end of the film that “we should stay away from interventions that build enemies for the United States.”  

     

How this resonates with our military adventures in the Middle East and in other regions where said "blowback" of hostile fundamentalist armies (which we now know are funded by the U.S. itself and its allies) further undoes our security and reputation. (In the case of Latin America, our tampering with other people's countries' infrastructures, economies  and resources, as well as our backing of illegal coups and drug wars which have caused  mass migrations of refugees, and have created greater problems for all nations involved, even as they have served as pretexts to justify further neoliberal economic intrusions  from Mexico, Honduras and  Guatemala, Chile, Ecuador and Argentina to Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Palestine, or the Congo.) 

 

Only when it became undeniably clear that the North Vietnamese were never going to surrender, that “Vietnamization” had not succeeded, and disillusion had overcome large segments of the American populace, did the idea of “winning hearts and minds,” a phrase reiterated again and again by our leaders starting with Johnson, begin to ring hollow. The dubious attempt by Clark Clifford to get back, as Davis suspects, “on the right side of history,” to have his legacy revised, smacks of the inverted and gross distortion of the one-time dove and winter soldier, John Kerry, later having given in to a defective and pathetic chest-thumping diplomacy as Secretary of State, ludicrously threatening foreign leaders like Vladimir Putin to no avail.

 

 

 

 

 

The number of policy-makers implicated in the mismanagement of the war is staggering. Not only hawks like National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, but aspiring pacifists like Senator J. William Fulbright who, as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, “shepherded-in" the 'Gulf of Tonkin' Resolution, then later recanted. It was “a dangerous time to be outspoken,” he said. Davis also interviewed Daniel Ellsberg who reminded us that “Eisenhauer lied, Kennedy lied, Johnson lied,” as did Nixon after, and Truman before them from 1950 on, regarding what Ellsberg claimed to be “the nature and purpose of the French colonial reconquest that we were financing.” He went on to say: “We weren't on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.”

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Photograph by Nick Ut in the Public Domain

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Photograph in the Public Domain, U.S. Army

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Davis began filming as the war was winding down. He states that it was Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity, about the Nazi occupation of France, that inspired him to make his film. Edited down from two-hundred hours of raw footage, Davis handed over eleven hours to his two editors, Lynzee Klingman and Susan Martin. The 112-minute finished film covers a considerable amount of ground including the words and thoughts of soldiers, peasant farmers, prisoners-of-war, and policy-makers. He states in the voice-over commentary that “the use and abuse of one human being by another...was an extension of the war...” including the unsettling “whorehouse scene,” in which two soldiers callously make use of two prostitutes, roughly handle them, and compare their bodies and bite marks.

 

We begin to believe Davis when he says that not only was it the technology of weaponry but also the technology of filming that had tyrannized and exploited the Vietnamese people; at the same time it gradually becomes difficult for the viewer to maintain his or her bearings. A scene from a dinner-party for released prisoners-of-war in Washington at which comedian Bob Hope jokes, “That's what I like... a captive audience" seems to become almost as groteque an act as a soldier setting fire to a peasant's thatched hut with a cigarette lighter. Of course, there is no comparison. The uneasy feeling of the veterans who are not sure whether they have just had their service and honor exploited and besmirched pales next to the reality of a civilian bombed, maimed, had family members killed, or made homeless.

     

Walter Lippman wrote: “We are all captives of the pictures in our heads—our belief that the world we have experienced is the world that really exists.” This simple but profound truth should be recalled whenever we grow too comfortable with the false perception of our superiority. Our unquestioning acceptance of Western notions of “progress,” “democracy,” “culture,” and “civilization” are no more clear to us now than they were forty years ago. We have not evolved and we have caused much damage to others on whom we have imposed our "values." The lunacy of believing that we might have bombed the Vietnamese into “the stone age” in order to liberate them reveals how pathological we, as a culture, are.

 

What we, in truth, accomplished was the deforestation of a paradisiacal landscape, the poisoning of natural water sources and mangrove forests, the destruction of communities, the collateral murder of somewhere between three- and four-million people, and the maiming and displacement of even more, not to forget the legacy of landmines which continues to kill and maim decades after the fact. In the outtakes, in Davis's interview with author Phillipe Devillers, Devillers notes that 80 tons of bombs were dropped on England in World War II. 7,000,000 tons were dropped on Vietnam (a country the size of California), Cambodia and Laos.

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Photograph in the Public Domain, author unknown

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Have we become more perceptive, less easily fooled, by these “masters of war,” as the Bob Dylan song went so long ago? Or have we become hardened, cynical and incapable of recognizing the veils and filters—the smoke and mirrors—put in place by a venal and vitiated corporate-controlled media and government, as well as our own apathy, paranoia, pride and mindless, bottomless capacity for consumption? The “America: love it or leave it” version of patriotism is not as pervasive as it once was, but it's still around. It was Graham Greene who wrote: “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.” Our current brand of patriotism is perhaps today no more sophisticated than the hard-hat parades of the sixties, the brass bands, the fife-and-drum-playing rank and file and baton-twirling majorettes, the whole emotion-distorting circus by which we are, and remain, unfazed, just as we are by the carnage wreaked by B-52s or, in a closer-to-home reality, the selling of tee-shirts and trinkets at the 9/11 Museum.

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