This morning I watched an old documentary about the Vietnam War called Hearts and Minds. Having been released in 1974, it might as well be a primary historical source for the time period. Throughout the entire documentary there are only one or two people interviewed who maintain their conviction that going into Vietnam was the right decision to make. With the war being in its later stages at that point, by the early-1970s public opinion had curdled into a gnawing sense that America’s involvement had made a mistake:
Hearts and Minds is shot in the Cinéma vérité style which is empty of narration and is more like a sound-and-visual mosaic than a linearly constructed narrative film. The style provokes questions in the viewer’s mind instead of stating explicit conclusions. Documentaries today tend to be more pointed in their ends, and while they can be profound artistic statements they typically require less critical thinking from their audience.
Hearts and Minds got me thinking about history and what the past means today. How do we examine and account for the actions of people who came before us? How do we constructively improve on and learn from their mistakes? Moreover, how should we feel about all this?
“I look at the world and I notice its turning
With every mistake we must surely be learning”
—’While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, The Beatles
Here are a few of the thoughts and questions on my mind after watching this movie. More generally, these inquiries are about warfare and the nature of conflict in the 21st century instead of the Vietnam War:
- With the atomic bomb hanging over our heads is humanity doomed to endlessly fight regional wars? The Vietnam War, Iraq/Afghanistan/Libya, Catholics vs. Protestants in Ireland, Israel vs. Palestine, African genocide, Russia annexing Crimea, the Syrian Civil War—these are mostly ancient grievances avenged on a modern battlefield. Major powers might get involved to further their own ends but these conflicts primarily remain regional. They’re limited in that they’re contained within their borders even though they have dramatic international consequences (refugee crises emboldening far-right demagoguery, wasting endless tax dollars nation-building abroad while neglecting infrastructure back home, etc.) but unlimited in that there is no end in sight. Compared to a raging inferno like World War II, these brush fires are geographically contained but still potentially ruinous for people outside the demarcated war-zones.
- Are the battle-lines in modern war drawn between chaos and order? In modern war, is the enemy invisible and internal? Chaos is not evenly distributed across the world. There are golf courses of absolute tranquility next to neighborhoods that exist in crushing poverty. You’d probably feel safer on the golf course so could those hollowed out streets be thought of as a sort of battlefield?
- Is there a limit to how thoroughly American citizens can distrust it’s government? The ever-expanding Vietnam War and Nixon were bad enough but now we have some guy in charge who will say anything to make the headlines and will then turn around and say that the press is the enemy of the people. Trust in government and its supporting institutions have crumbled over the past 50 years:
- How do we properly show respect to our veterans? I’m not sure that as a civilian I can truly understand their experience. The question for them is how to come back to America and make sense of their traumatic wartime experience. Sadly, the best I’m able to provide is empathy and a vague sense of appreciation for their sacrifice.
“We’ve all tried very hard to escape what we’ve learned in Vietnam. They don’t realize that people fighting for their own freedom are not going to be stopped.”