“The same delusion that made men suppose themselves to be solid and independent individual selves could also make them see such changing, insubstantial entities as state and society as real and enduring, and subordinate themselves to them.” —An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, Pankaj Mishra
This past Veteran’s Day, a holiday I don’t remember ever commemorating before, felt different. I am an adult and my country is again making war. Recently, I have seen pictures that grieved me to the core: of the faces of American mothers who have lost sons in Iraq; of Iraqi fathers holding children mutilated and killed. So I decided to show a documentary.
Hearts and Minds was released in 1974 and interviews key players in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon Administrations, American generals and GIs, and their loved ones, and also a variety of Vietnamese people: a former president, a Buddhist monk, a Catholic priest, a magazine editor, a former political prisoner, two old women whose 78-year-old sister was killed by a bomb, a father whose 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son were killed by a bomb. Among the interviewed was my father, who flew 98 bombing missions over Vietnam in 1967-68.
The film won an Academy Award and still receives some play on college campuses but has largely disappeared from the public consciousness. This is a shame, I think, because it provides such a broad and darkly beautiful look at how war takes shape, how it is (often) falsely presented, and how it affects the people involved. I invited 30 people and wound up with 10 in my living room, gamely sitting wherever there was a spot, about half on the floor. We ate a little food and settled in to watch it.
It had been a long time since I had seen the film, 10 or 15 years, but it unfolded with a bittersweet familiarity, leading into the urgency and grief of the final 20 minutes. None of the friends and friends of friends with me had ever seen the film. Things were quiet, except when I read aloud the subtitled names and places for those who couldn’t see the letters on the small screen.
The story unfolds in television news blurbs, old movie reels, a Revolutionary War re-enactment, returned POW parades and a POW White House dinner (Bob Hope: “Now, this is what I like, a captive audience.”). Interviews with American veterans being fitted with prosthetic legs, one man sitting in a wheelchair saying it’s the loss of belief in “my country” that makes him bitter, a pilot sitting on a rickety front porch talking about the bombs he dropped and imagining what it would be like to have his own children so killed. You can see the hair length expand and contract according to pro- or anti-war sentiment in a way that brings home that old David Crosby song of the same period:
“Almost cut my hair/Happened just the other day/It was gettin’ kinda long/I could’ve said it was in my way/But I didn’t and I wonder why/Feel like letting my freak flag fly/I feel like I owe it to someone.”
The film doesn’t change but the viewer does. Each time I watch it, my father’s face on the screen becomes younger. Now I am almost a decade older than he was in the making of the film. Watching it now, I was more taken by the pain radiating out of the face of a man whose son had been killed in Vietnam, but who spoke at length about it having been a worthwhile sacrifice for the great ideals that make up America. His wife’s silence is monumental, but she is able to smile. Watching this time, I was more involved in the experience of a returned POW, six years captive, saying that he would go again if he had to. To a group of Catholic School children, he proclaimed that those who burned draft cards and went to Canada were saying that, “They don’t like you and me. And they can’t come back.” And to a gathering of American women and mothers, that it was terrifying to face a bunch of “gooks,” but better that than a bunch of angry women back home. I found out afterwards that this brave man said that, of all the horrible experiences of the war, the making of Hearts and Minds was the worst. He was a believer in the necessity and goodness of the war whose words were used as a foil for a different belief, the pro-peace belief of the film’s director, Peter Davis.
After the film we stirred tenuously back into the present. Others wiped away tears. Some stretched and talked. The youngest person sat still and stunned.
To get a conversation started, I called up my dad, and also a community college professor from Ann Arbor, Michigan, who has taught the film in her documentary course for 15 years. (Her contacting me to reach my dad was an inspiration for the gathering.) We settled in, getting off to an awkward start with my insufficient speaker-phone. Who’s talking?, Oh, sorry, didn’t hear you, louder, speak louder. We wound up huddled around the phone as around a campfire.
Madrona started us off, talking about having been a pubescent child just coming into consciousness when the war in Vietnam was going on. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, such a powerful age to start figuring out where you fit in the world, and by the way, what is really going on out there? She opposed the war then. She now has two teenaged sons, and shared her prayers that they never be drafted.
Lowrey asked my father what made such a difference in his own perspective between talking about the “sterile” and “technical” experience of war that was his original feeling, and then later coming to wonder what it was like for those on the ground, under his bombs. He shared two stories: The first occurred in Japan, where he had been sent to train for delivery of nuclear weapons. He was there for 5 days, and for 5 nights he went home with a Japanese woman, a geisha. And one morning she took him to the Peace Museum of Hiroshima, where she left him, and he spent all that day looking at the etched shadows of bodies on pavement, the clocks that stopped, the disintegrated city.
A few years later, he was back from Vietnam, a new father, and a student of political science, not fitting in well with the guppies and still seeking something. (The first year back, he explained, nothing means anything. No aspect of ordinary life can grip you when you’re used to the adrenaline of constantly living on the edge of life and death.) Jane Fonda came to his college campus and he went to see her, a movie star! He wound up talking to some vets, his first contact with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). He was invited to go to Detroit for the Winter Soldier Hearings and he wound up sitting there for 3 days, dumbfounded by the consistent stories of the ugliness of war, the awful things soldiers did, and then had a hard time living with. Then he read a few books (“Does anybody read books anymore?”), met John Kerry and toured Capitol Hill, speaking with Members of Congress on behalf of VVAW.
Amy wanted to know what he thought of the Swiftboat debacle during the Kerry Campaign for President. “John is a nice guy whose heart is in the right place. But I think that whole Swiftboat thing was poorly handled. He should have fought back harder.”
Jean, the professor from Michigan, said that she has had many students impacted by the film. Often they come in with a belief in a “kinder war,” an oxymoron that gathers believers where we are so divorced from the reality. Her own husband, who also served in Vietnam, has never gotten completely over the reality he experienced of war. “He feels, I think, that his life has been minimized.”
“I know mine has been.” my father replied quietly.
“There is no honor in a war where there is no equality,” my father said. “We have had the technological advantage in every war of the last 50 years, and it seems that soldiers now are mostly used as bait for the slaughter by technology. We’ve already lost the Iraq War. It’s so much more violent there now than it was one year or two years ago. It’s only going to get worse. And God knows how long it will drag out.”
“So, Dad, are you a pacifist?”
“I want to be a pacifist. I’m an intellectual pacifist. But I believe people have a right to defend their homeland.” And he paraphrased a quote from 1920s Major General Smedley Butler, USMC, which I later looked up:
“War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses. I believe in adequate defense at the coastline and nothing else. If a nation comes over here to fight, then we’ll fight.
The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.
I wouldn’t go to war again as I have done to protect some lousy investment of the bankers. There are only two things we should fight for. One is the defense of our homes and the other is the Bill of Rights. War for any other reason is simply a racket.”
“And we should defend someone else who is under attack,” came a comment from Rion.
“Just think of Rwanda.” I agreed; you could also bring up the suffering in Darfur occurring right now, the suffering of the Jews in Hitler’s Europe, the hundreds of thousands killed in Tibet and East Timor, and so on. But, I added, that is a slippery slope, since it’s hard to know exactly what is the truth of what is happening hundreds or thousands of miles away. Particularly when the freedom of the media has been so curtailed. We all agreed that the media is so much more tightly controlled, if not downright censored, now than 30 years ago.
I wanted to extend the conversation but my guests had been with me now for nearly 4 hours and a few were definitely drooping. I reluctantly brought things to a close.
One of the gifts of speech and writing, of film and technology, and the ability to record our history, is the ability to learn from that history. We have so many elements of American and world history at our disposal but they are lost to us if they remain buried in library stacks and dusty video shelves. So to dig up this piece of history and offer it to my peers, and to have them accept and experience it with me, was a powerful exercise.
We all have such links, whether on film or in our family stories, and it is important I think to pull them out, polish them up, and shine their light around. After all, a connection that touches your personal past will rope in your heart, and one that is grounded in public knowledge and political history will engage your mind. We need activity in both our hearts and our minds more now than ever.
“. . . for Gandhi, liberation from British rule meant nothing if it wasn’t preceded by self-appraisal and introspection by individual Indians... For the enemy were not the British, or the West, but the immemorial forces of human greed and violence that had received an unprecedented moral sanction in the political, scientific and economic systems of the modern world... With his Buddhistic insight into suffering as something universal and indivisible, Gandhi made compassion the basis of political action... He didn’t only infuse it with ethical responsibility, he tried to make politics an ongoing public and private process, a matter of individual conscience rather than of an arbitrarily decided general will.” — An End to Suffering
Shannon Floyd is a mother, activist, and non-profit manager living in NE Portland. She welcomes reader comments at [email protected].