Photograph in the Public Domain, author unknown

Revisiting

'Hearts and Minds'

James Williamson

In 1972, Phan Thi "Kim" Phúc was around the age of nine when she was photographed by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut running naked down a road away from the village of Trảng Bàngwith freshly burned skin and flesh, after a napalm attack by the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese Air Force.

 

Ut's photograph of Kim remains one of the most devastating statements about the US war in Vietnam. The image of the assault on Kim and other fleeing villagers became an icon of the antiwar movement as well as an unforgettable imprint on the collective memory of the public. For the supporters of the American imperial adventure in Southeast Asia, it was an annoying two-dimensional piece of agitprop intended to break the morale of the soldiers fighting there. President Nixon “doubted the authenticity” of the image and General William Westmoreland insultingly dismissed Kim's injuries as the result of an "hibachi accident."

 

In the 16 millimeter film footage shot simultaneously by British television cameraman Alan Downes, smoke billowed in the background, a woman carrying a child hurried past, chaos ensued; and though the still image had never been disputed by the public, it was given a new life and credibility by the 16 millimeter footage. In it, Kim, after initially crying, composed herself, the pain no longer revealed on her face, while burnt flaps of skin hung loosely from her small frame and as a soldier began to pour water on her back from his canteen.

But it was Peter Davis's 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds that brought that event, and Kim's experience, to life for the rest of us.

 

Later, as a young woman, Kim would be removed from her university by the communist Vietnamese government and used as a propaganda tool. However, she was allowed to go to Cuba to continue her medical studies. She eventually settled in Canada, became a citizen, and now has two children of her own.

     

Davis has been accused of being too heavy-handed in his editing of Hearts and Minds. However, those criticisms come across now as the fastidious quibbles of commercial film reviewers incapable of discerning between the usual Hollywood fare of contrived or glamourized war scenes and the disturbing reality that can only be revealed by first-hand documentary footage with all of its unquestionable horror. These commercial critics seem to belong to a class of reviewers that likes to be regarded as having the same dubious credibility as mainstream journalists, by claiming to put a premium on “impartiality” and “objectivity,” confusing both concepts with truth. This was a prevalent attitude at the time among news reporters and even many film documentarians as well. Obviously, it wasn't always, necessarily, a useful or effective one.

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Photograph in the Public Domain by Dennis Kurpius

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In the voice-over commentary of the Criterion Collection 2-disc set I had borrowed from my local library, Davis himself, attempts to embrace this same “impartiality.” Fortunately for us, he more than somewhat fails in his attempt and despite his best efforts he, perhaps unwittingly, ends up taking a position and assuming a stance—which is a much more potent method of observation, or so claim great documentarians like W. Eugene Smith (who reported on battlefields in Guam toward the end of WWII) or Philip Jones Griffiths (of Vietnam Inc. fame). Despite his attempt to “rein himself in” with the creed of impartiality, as Davis had been accustomed to doing as a filmmaker for NBC, his deft treatment of the shock and horror of the film's images pierce our glazed-over expectations and easy preconceptions.

 

The idea of mass-indoctrination or propaganda was not as easily recognized, acknowledged, let alone embraced, by the general public fifty to sixty years ago as it is today. When the film shows images of the offices and factories of Ford, Sprite, Coke, Bank of America, Chase Manhattan, Esso (Exxon) in Saigon, juxtaposed against scenes of urban slums and shantytowns, we are now much more inclined to connect the dots between an imperialistic foreign policy and what we now know was a nascent casino capitalism not yet fully deregulated by Democratic and Republican administrations. These images dovetail with what we have since learned about Wall Street and the mercenary war business—Lockheed Martin, Halliburton, Blackwater, Kellogg, Brown & Root, et al. Still, comparing the effects of media coverage of wars then and now, is it safe to conclude that we were more affected by what we were exposed to in the press in the sixties and seventies than what we are exposed to now? After all, the war in Southeast Asia was the first to be reported on and directly presented to American viewers, week by week, if not day by day, in the media.

 

Davis's film of horrific images of beatings, interrogations, villages torched by American soldiers with flame-throwers, fleeing refugees, “limb-factories,” limbs both prosthetic and missing, the crippled political prisoners who had been kept in tiger cages on Con Son Island, the aerial spraying of Agent Orange (the deadly concoction produced by a nefarious collaboration between Monsanto and Dow), a veteran's description of CBUs (cluster bomb units) full of pellets intended to “shred” the enemy (or civilians thought to be the enemy) are relevant to, and mesh with, what we have heard or read about more recently regarding the civilian killings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen by drones and privatized mercenary companies like Blackwater. News of the My Lai massacre (not a part of the film, however Davis does question General Westmoreland about it in the outtakes) was actually more probing of the war effort then than were Wikileaks' (Chelsea Manning's) video- 

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