The 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds demonstrates how brutal and horrific the Vietnam War was for the Vietnamese people. American bombs fall on villages, killing the young and the elderly alike. In one scene, a woman who was wounded by bombs and made unable to work tells the camera that her sister – who was in her seventies – was killed by the bombing. She explains that her home was destroyed and that this has forced her to move in with her other sister. Both of them are too old to start again. Their losses are devastating.
In another scene, the audience learns that American planes are killing Vietnamese children with gas that is destroying their intestines. One Vietnamese man says that there are hundreds of tons of bombs dropped each day. He says that even though the people of Vietnam are suffering, they are afraid to talk because they are afraid of reprisals from the government.
One very striking aspect of this film is its exposure of the racist and demeaning way in which some Americans – soldiers in particular – treated the Vietnamese. Several soldiers refer to the Vietnamese as “gooks”. One soldier says he fought because he “just wanted to kill some gooks.” Other soldiers take advantage of the services of Vietnamese prostitutes. They treat them in a very condescending manner. One tells a woman offering him her services that the price she is asking is too high for someone like her. Another gets agitated when one woman won’t remove her bra, and the other tells him to “do it for her.” Neither of them seems to care how she feels about it. They treat the women as objects.
Vietnamese men were treated just as badly. One soldier talks about a Vietnamese man who was beaten with hoses. He says that the man was tortured until he couldn’t respond. The soldier also says that Americans tortured a Vietnamese man by threatening to throw him off of a helicopter unless he spoke. When he was still unable to tell them anything, he says, they threw him off the side – in view of another Vietnamese man who at once began babbling and telling them everything he could think of, in order to save his own life.
One Vietnamese man tells the filmmaker that American troops think of the Vietnamese as “slant-eyed savages.” However, the man says, “It is not we who are the savages.” It is worth nothing that his eyes are much like any white persons – not slanted in the least.
Although there are many similarities between the Americans and the Vietnamese, their shared humanity is lost on one American hero and POW – Lieutenant George Coker. Coker tells a school girl who asks him what Vietnam looks like that the country is “beautiful” – except for the people. “The people there are very backward and very primitive,” he tells her, “and they just make a mess out of everything.”
Many of the scenes in the film are unforgettable and horrifying. The Vietnamese see their homes torched. Women holding babies emerge bloody-faced after attacks. A soldier shoots one man in the face at point-blank. He collapses in a pool of blood. Others suffering relentless beatings. Men and women tell tales of imprisonment without reason, charge or trial. They are tortured in prison and fed only rotten fish. One woman says that she continues to have headaches and nose bleeds even years later.
Napalm burns the skin off of children. A soldier admits that he dropped things “just as bad”, including pellets that exploded and ripped people to shreds. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, a father tells the film makers that pigs live while his daughter dies. He says that he will give them his daughter’s “beautiful shirt” and tells them to throw it in Nixon’s face. “Tell him,” the man says, “she was only a school girl.” Just as heartbreaking is a scene showing a grieving child. He weeps over his father’s grave, unable to pull himself away. In the same scene, a woman is so devastated by the loss of her loved one that she tries to throw herself into his grave.
Heart and Minds is hard for an American to watch without feeling greatly troubled in both heart and mind. The reality of the consequences of American actions is devastating to the conscience.