The Things We Carry

What films of the Vietnam era can tell us about the present

| March / April 2006

Peter Davis' 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds is filled with appalling scenes. U.S. troops nonchalantly set villages on fire, torture Vietnamese prisoners, and rifle through the clothing on dead bodies. A colonel gleefully describes his men as 'a bloody good bunch of killers.' And three soldiers with kill spray-painted on their uniforms head out on patrol.

When it first reached theaters, the film served as shock treatment for Americans -- a challenge to anyone who saw Vietnam as an exercise in virtue or self-defense. The film was threatened with legal action, and at one screening, protesters tore the seats out of the theaters.

More than 30 years later, the debate about Vietnam is virtually over, and Americans aren't quite so easily shocked. But that doesn't mean Hearts and Minds has lost its power. Instead, the film has grown deeper and more poignant. Today, it's a modern tragedy and one of several recently re-released political films from the 1960s and 1970s that feel as urgent and relevant as ever. Hearts and Minds, along with Winter Soldier and Harlan County USA, suggests that injustice and abuses of power are woven into the American fabric.

In Hearts and Minds, Davis uses an assemblage of interviews, war footage, and archival clips to show us Vietnam from an array of perspectives. Through Davis' lens, we see a war built on murky rationales whose outcome was profoundly uncertain. The damage done to our own young men was incalculable; the suffering we wrought 'over there' was even greater. To watch Hearts and Minds is to read Vietnam as a how-not-to manual on conducting a war. As the occupation of Iraq grows more deadly by the day, Davis' scenario feels all too familiar.

Another Vietnam doc, Winter Soldier, directed by the Winterfilm Collective, was filmed in 1971 at a conference of newly returned vets. Broadcasters and theater chains considered it too incendiary to show to audiences, but Winter Soldier is resolutely simple in style: The footage consists almost entirely of soldiers describing atrocities they witnessed and committed.

The most chilling scenes -- really, some of the most chilling footage ever put on film -- feature the decorated Marine Scott Camil as he vividly describes the brutality of his training, the dehumanizing racism toward the Vietnamese, and the way that killing became a game. His comrades bought beers, he said, for the Marine who collected the most ears from dead Vietnamese. And if Camil had to kill 150 civilians to make sure none of them could harm him, he'd do it, without a second thought. By the end of Camil's testimony, we are left with the unsettling and unshakable idea that our military can turn American kids into monsters -- the same feeling we got when we saw the photos from Abu Ghraib.

By connecting the past and the present, vintage political films like Hearts and Minds and Winter Soldier do more than serve up history; they reveal how certain kinds of injustice never go out of style. Barbara Kopple's gripping, restless documentary Harlan County USA follows a 13-month strike by Kentucky coal miners. These men work 80-hour shifts, live in shacks without water, and are unable to feed their families. Uninsured, they die young of black lung. And, after decades of suffering, they've finally organized themselves to make some modest demands, only to find themselves treated like the enemy by the profit-obsessed energy corporation ('We have plans to upgrade them to trailers,' one representative says).

Harlan County's themes of corporate malfeasance, dangerous workplaces, and the invisibility of labor still echo through today's workplaces. Thirty years later, we have the 2002 defunding of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the workers broken by Enron's collapse, the 5,700 on-the-job fatalities in 2004 (a number that has been rising in recent years), and tens of millions of American workers who have no health insurance. And, of course, the deadly disaster at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in January.

Less accomplished political films often read like manifestos, but the best ones offer layers of complexity and meaning. They are subject to reinterpretation, and that's why they travel well through time. The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, re-released in 2004 on DVD, shows the French colonial forces crushing a popular uprising in the mid-1950s, only to be defeated by an explosive insurgency a few years later. In the late 1960s the Black Panthers used the film as a recruitment tool; in 2003 the Pentagon screened it for military planners preparing for Iraq.

Winter Soldier, Hearts and Minds, and Harlan County have particular resonance for Americans: They require us to do some soul-searching about our homeland. Unlike, say, Fahrenheit 9/11, which might leave us incensed at a particular group of politicians, these three films reveal deeply ingrained inequities in our culture that have persisted over time.

While we were taught to believe that America is an ethical country, riding a moral growth curve, these movies suggest a different model: America as repeat offender.

Hearts and Minds and The Battle of Algiers are available on DVD through The Criterion Collection ( and will have a limited theatrical release through Rialto Pictures ( Winter Soldier is scheduled for DVD release this March through Milliarium Zero ( Harlan County USA will be released early this summer by The Criterion Collection.

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