Hearts and Minds: Empathy, War, and the Problem of Us vs. Them

What I value most about history and film, my two favorite subjects in the world, is their ability to generate empathy. There’s a great Roger Ebert quote from the documentary Life Itself that comes to mind: “… for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” Films and history can give voices to the voiceless and expose different sides of the dominant voice. On the flip side, films and history can reinforce false narratives to keep the voiceless oppressed and the dominant voice unchallenged. Films as recent as Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper reinforce the narrative of the savage enemy and the heroic American who puts them down. American Sniper was the second-highest grossing R-rated film ever, so clearly there was a demand for it, and those demanding it voiced their racist opinions about Arabs after seeing the film. It’s propaganda fanning the flames of nationalism and racism. However, film’s empathy-generating power can counter propaganda. Hearts and Minds is one of those essential examples of counter-propaganda.

Hearts and Minds is a Vietnam War documentary that depicts Vietnamese victims of war, the soldiers that bombed and poisoned them, the politicians and generals that told them to do so, and the American people’s attitude towards the war. The Vietnam War is remembered as America’s first real loss in a war, when people bother to remember it. Hearts and Minds shows in an interview with Captain Randy Floyd, a pilot whom ran 98 bombing missions in Vietnam, asking him what we’ve learned from Vietnam, he says “I think we’re trying not to.” 1974 was the year before the Vietnam War was truly over, and folks were already trying to unlearn everything they learned.

Some of those who chose to remember tried to justify their actions in Vietnam. One could take the side of Lt. George Coker, an American POW who appears in the film speaking at several conventions about his experiences as a POW and his views on patriotism. Several times Coker says things like “I was what you made to be.” He says this in front of young Catholic students and elderly women. He unflinchingly uses the word “gook” to describe the Vietnamese. He dehumanizes not only the North Vietnamese Army and Vietcong, but also the South Vietnamese by calling all Vietnamese backwards. This attitude comes directly from the top. General William Westmoreland tells director Peter Davis “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” This scene is juxtaposed with a gut-wrenching Vietnamese funeral for a man most likely killed by American bombs or napalm. Hearts and Minds takes the side of the Vietnamese as victims of a foreign invasion, but in order to do so effectively it must document those invaders. We must understand the oppressors if we want to work against oppression, but not excuse them.

It’s important to note that in depicting Vietnam as a victim, Hearts and Minds also avoids infantilizing the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese knew what was happening when American soldiers sprayed poison and napalm to destroy their crops and jungles. The South Vietnamese government was complicit in these actions because they benefited from the corporations and power America gave them. American companies like Ford, Coca-Cola, and Bank of America were setting up shop in capitalist South Vietnam. There’s a scene featuring the political leaders of Saigon having a lavish dinner party in a country club telling crude jokes about women. One of the leaders asks them to stop so they don’t look ridiculous in front of the camera. If there’s a flaw in Hearts and Minds, it’s the depiction of the North Vietnamese Army. That is to say they’re barely featured in the film. It’s understandable that Peter Davis would have an easier time filming in America and South Vietnam, but it would have been nice if the film could have presented a more complete picture of Vietnam. What Davis captured of Vietnam is still impressive and helps to understand the mindset of the South Vietnamese contrasted with the Vietnamese refugees. It demystifies Vietnam as the “Oriental” Other that General Westmoreland saw them as.

We justify acts of atrocity all the time as heroic or necessary. We had to accept Vietnam as a loss, but many refused to see the war as wrong. Ronald Reagan tried to justify the war with this speech in 1980 at a Veterans convention: “It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause.  A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.  We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned.  They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war.  They deserve our gratitude, our respect, and our continuing concern.” Note the language used. Vietnam was “newly free from colonial rule” and “sought our help… against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest.” This is the same rhetoric used by America to today to justify wars in the Middle East. We coat our ignorance of foreign affairs in the language of a savior of the weak. However, Vietnam was not “free from colonial rule.” The Vietnamese refugees saw Americans as colonists. The only difference between the French and Americans was the language they spoke and the companies they built.

I believe in respecting veterans, but I also believe in criticizing our involvement in war. I believe it is necessary to understand both sides of the conflict. We must not paint these narratives as black-and-white us vs. them politics. That leads to dangerous propaganda like American Sniper, which fuels hatred of Arabs and Muslims by depicting American murder of them as heroic. This kind of narrative not only affects movies, it affects video games as well. One of the writers on Battlefield Hardline recently said “I wrote one about this guy getting back together with his ex-girlfriend. Someone on the team pointed out that ‘hey idiot, this is someone you are about to shoot in the head, not deliver flowers to,’ so we decided, let’s not go down that route. We had to cut out the dialog and make it more informative. We had to make sure the bad guys felt like bad guys so the player isn’t as emotionally conflicted about the gameplay.” This is an admittance of removing empathy from the narrative, because empathy would make it less enjoyable for the player to murder people. To get back to Vietnam, think of how the Best Picture winner The Deer Hunter portrays the Vietcong. The Vietcong are depicted as sadists that enjoy forcing American POWs to play Russian roulette. The film is willing to show Americans as complex and empathetic, but unwilling to extend that same empathy to the Vietnamese.

We must take care in how we portray all sides in any conflict. Not all sides are equally valid, of course. Modern hate groups like GamerGate should never be given the same legitimacy as the women they harass. Understanding does not excuse atrocities, but it can help us deal with atrocities. Films like Hearts and Minds resist the simplicity of the black-and-white narrative that we are spoon-fed in films like American Sniper. Whether you’ve studied the history of Vietnam in-depth or not, Hearts and Minds is a must-see. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, and appeals to my desire for empathy.

3 thoughts on “Hearts and Minds: Empathy, War, and the Problem of Us vs. Them

  1. Thank you for this excellent read. I learn about you through ANN, and came to this blog to read more of your thought on Anime and Manga, but what a surprise indeed. I think Heart and Mind is a honest documentary too. When a film paints a picture with “I & It” instead of “I & Thou”, the balance has already been off from the beginning. Thankfully, Heart and Mind does not do that. Anyone who is interested in the Vietnamese War should watch this documentary, I think so. It saddens me when hearing many Vietnamese refugees said that Vietnam is better off a colony of the U.S or France, the Vietcong is the atrocious invader, and “Our Country is forever lost”. No dude, Vietnam is not lost, you ran away from it. Though I guess I cannot make a sound argument with them, cause I was born way after the war, and I haven’t lived in Vietnam for almost ten years already. I also don’t know whether the Vietcong is right or wrong, cause the state of Vietnam now is not really good either (with all the corruption, all the cultural loss, all the decadence of society, and so forth). However, Heart and Mind gives us a sight of the unprivileged South Vietnamese at the war time. And I am thank Mr. Peter Davis for its existence.

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