Mullen: Vietnam War Film, biased or true?

James Mullen

I am a veteran of the Vietnam War, having served with the 1st Marine Division from mid-1966 through mid-1967 in the northern area of what was then South Vietnam. On Thursday, April 15 I attended the showing of a film on campus that was sponsored by the College Democrats. The name of the film was “Hearts and Minds,” and it was introduced with the tag line “Do You Know What Happened in Vietnam?” Invitations to view the film came via e-mail from Dr. Timothy Horner of the core humanities department and the film was introduced with a commentary from Dr. Paul Rosier of the history department. The introduction informed the audience that this was a documentary about Vietnam that was made in 1974. Nothing was mentioned about the perspective from which this film was made, or the fact that it was a decidedly one-sided view of U. S. involvement in Vietnam. It was pointed out that the film received an Academy Award for documentaries in 1974, which is a fact. However, nothing was mentioned about the producer, Bert Schneider, reading a message from the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Vietnam (Viet Cong) at the award ceremony that year, nor his reference to the “liberation” of South Vietnam.

The film touched upon many of the usual stereotypes about the Vietnam War and those who fought in it. One topic was war atrocities. It presented only those that were committed on the American side either by U.S. troops or our South Vietnamese allies. No one can deny that incidents like My Lai occurred. However, this film leads one to believe that they were official American military policy, which they most definitely were not. As an undergrad going to school on the G.I. Bill I wrote a paper on the topic. In it I argued that My Lai constituted a terrible crime and that all those responsible (Lt. Calley, Capt. Medina, higher officers in the chain of command, as well as those troops who actually killed the villagers) should receive the maximum punishment allowed under military justice. However, as in any war, atrocities occur on both sides, and any objective analysis of Vietnam will show that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese committed unspeakable acts against the people of South Vietnam. By purposely omitting incidents such as what happened in the city of Hue during the Tet Offensive of early 1968, the film’s makers demonstrate their obvious bias. When North Vietnamese troops entered Hue they came with lists of South Vietnamese citizens who were earmarked for execution (government officials, military officers, and faculty members at Hue University). After U. S. Marines and South Vietnamese troops retook the city they found mass graves containing approximately 4,000 people who had been shot or stabbed and had lye poured on their bodies. That is a well known and documented example of a war atrocity but it is never mentioned in “Hearts and Minds.”

One of the techniques used in the film was to interview veterans. Many of those interviewed represented the views of a small group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). At its peak in the early 1970’s this organization had about 7,000 members (“The Anatomy of Betrayal” by Dan Cragg). Why did the film’s producers confine their interviews to those veterans when there were 2.6 million people who served in South Vietnam from January, 1965 through March, 1973? Was it their bias again manifesting itself? The film also stated that a half million men deserted during the war. That leads one to believe that so many troops were disgruntled by American policy that they deserted in droves. In actuality there were 5,000 American troops who deserted during the long duration of the Vietnam War, only five percent of them from units deployed in South Vietnam (“Vietnam War Almanac” by Harry Summers). Why such a glaring discrepancy?

After viewing this film I felt compelled to address the students in attendance. Unfortunately only a few stayed for the brief question and answer session after the film was over.

My concern is that many Villanova students who saw “Hearts and Minds” left with the impression that Vietnam veterans are the “racist baby-killers” depicted in the film. In order to give another perspective I offer the College Democrats an opportunity to sponsor a panel discussion with Vietnam veterans on campus. Participating will be Dr. James Kirschke of the English Department, Dr. Greg Bonner of the Marketing Department, Dr. Fred Dellva of the Finance Department, and me. I strongly believe that college students should be exposed to multiple perspectives on any issue. After weighing the merits of all perspectives, they can then make up their own minds. Since we are at a point that would not be conducive to hold such a discussion because of final exams, etc. it should be scheduled for early in the Fall semester.

I can be reached on campus at extension 9-4349 to arrange the panel discussion. In the meantime, students interested in the American experience in Vietnam should read “The Best and the Brightest” by David Halberstam. Also, to get another perspective on Vietnam veterans and how they have been treated in the media and by Hollywood read “Stolen Valor” by B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley. And finally, come to the discussion in the Fall and find out “What Really Happened in Vietnam.”