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Friday, June 18, 2010
'Hearts and Minds'/'Winter Soldier'
Apocalypse then: lessons to be learned from the Vietnam War
There has been a lot of informed opinion lately suggesting that the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has already become a "new Vietnam."
That's a debatable point. For all the similarities of fighting elusive insurgents and trying to prop up a corrupt puppet regime, there are considerable differences as well. The first question, though, is really: What do people mean by this comparison?
"Vietnam" has become synonymous with a military quagmire and political defeat despite the application of overwhelming force. In a word: failure. So when the left talks of the "new Vietnam," it's a code word for futility, a blanket caution against any imperialistic military action. Similarly, the right's reaction is a knee-jerk dismissal, a blind belief that lightning won't strike twice.
"Do you think we've learned anything from this?" asks an interviewer in "Hearts and Minds," the Oscar-winning 1974 documentary on the Vietnam conflict.
"I think we're trying not to," says the interviewee, a disillusioned airman. "I think we're all trying very hard to escape what we've learned in Vietnam."
"Hearts and Minds," which sees a timely revival on the big screen this month, seeks to remind us of some of those lessons. Such as: Make sure your president isn't lying to you about the reasons for a war; torture is never a good idea; and don't assume you'll win over a country's populace — the proverbial "hearts and minds" of the people — by turning their country into a free-fire zone. My, how times change.
Director Peter Davis' doc is blatantly opinionated (and it's no surprise that Michael Moore cites it as a huge influence). He'll cut from an interview with Gen. William Westmoreland — commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1964-1968 — talking about how "the Oriental doesn't put the same value on human life as the Westerner" to a Vietnamese farmer, blind with grief, describing how his 8-year-old daughter and mother were killed in a U.S. bombing raid. The camera takes in the surroundings and you've got a farmer's house, some rice fields, and nothing of significant value militarily.
Westmoreland's getting shafted — to his credit, the man refused to coverup the notorious My Lai massacre by U.S. troops — but the film's point is a valid one: How exactly do we wage war now? Indiscriminate bombing, of questionable use militarily, is not only morally indefensible, it's the surest way to radicalize large segments of the population into supporting your enemies, something we see happening over and over in Afghanistan with U.S. air and drone strikes hitting wedding parties and villages.
In an era where so much warfare is conducted remotely — again, the drone attacks against militants in Waziristan on the Afghanistan / Pakistan border — using controls not dissimilar to a gaming console, it's worth pondering the words of Randy Floyd, the former F-6 pilot who started reconsidering what he was doing after visiting ground zero in Hiroshima. He describes bombing missions as "a game . . . this exercise of my technical expertise," the results of which "never really dawned on me. That reality of the screams or the people being blown away, or their homeland being destroyed . . . just wasn't a part of what I thought about."
Davis' film documents the irony of trying to "save" a country from communism while bombing it back to the Stone Age and turning about half of the population into refugees. Davis takes a wider view, though, exploring U.S. attitudes toward war and military duty, suggesting that the "stick with the team for the big win" platitudes that sound great in a football locker room are less than helpful when it comes to considering the conduct of a war.
The widespread use of torture, secret detentions, and racist attitudes toward the peasant Vietnamese are all explored in "Hearts and Minds," but these issues really come to the forefront in "Winter Soldier." This explosive, unprecedented 1972 doc tracks a group of Vietnam vets — most notably current senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry — testifying about the conduct of the war and atrocities that they witnessed or took part in.
Kerry's actions here earned him undying antipathy from the right, which culminated in the scurrilous "Swift Boat" campaign attacking his war record in a series of negative TV ads in 2004. (Despite the irony of Kerry having served honorably in Vietnam, while his chicken, hawk opponent George W. Bush avoided combat via a cushy placement in the national guard.) There has been a steady drumbeat of charges against "Winter Soldier," and Vietnam Veterans Against the War as well, that they were KGB-inspired, anti-American traitors who made up their testimony.
Given some of the testimony on offer — "They (command) didn't care what you were doing or how, they wanted bodies . . . and that's where civilians came in." "If I had to go into a village and shoot 100 people just to make sure that there was no one there to shoot me when I walked out, then that's what I did." — it's no surprise the right freaked; the "my country right or wrong" crowd would rather ignore crimes perpetrated against a foreign "other" than suffer the shame of admitting and correcting them.
Still, there's one easy answer to their charges: see the film. This is either the best, most moving and convincing acting by a huge cast of nonprofessionals you will ever see in your life, or it's the truth. Let your own heart and mind decide.