Some columnists, commentators and politicians, especially on the right, have been reluctant to acknowledge parallels between the Vietnam War and our current war in Iraq.
Nevertheless, the two have a lot in common: Undeclared by Congress, both wars emerged from murky motives, both were fought against a cultural backdrop that we didn’t fully understand but insisted on interpreting in terms of our own values, and both had uncertain goals and slippery definitions of victory. Why are we surprised that Iraq has turned into a Vietnamlike quagmire?
In fact, some Saturday night you might consider watching this cinematic double feature in order to shed some light on the parallels between these two wars. Michael Moore’s much-maligned “Fahrenheit 9/11” reminded me of “Hearts and Minds,” the Peter Davis documentary about the Vietnam War and the Academy Award winner for 1974’s Best Documentary. Like “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Hearts and Minds” makes no effort to hide its point of view; admittedly, both films are propaganda, in the best sense of the term. Moore and Davis have something to say about these two wars, and the viewer who sees both films will be struck by eerie echoes between them and by how little things change, when it comes to war and politics, even over 30 years.
For example, both directors argue that many wars, including these two, are begun by rich men, usually white, but are fought, for the most part, by the poor, by blacks and by Hispanics. Both films suggest that, even when the goals of combat are vague, our soldiers fight with a great deal of courage and honor, but, at the same time, they acknowledge how easily violence can shade into brutality and atrocity. And both films note that when civilians are close by, in Vietnam and in Iraq, they’re the ones who get hurt, especially the children.
Some scenes in “Fahrenheit 9/11” are flashbacks to scenes in “Hearts and Minds.” Both films visit rehabilitation hospitals where soldiers struggle with the loss of arms and legs. Both interview patriotic parents who are trying to make sense of the death of a son in an undeclared war without a clear purpose. Both contrast the life-and-death struggle and sacrifice on the other side of the world with the relative normalcy of life at home.
“Fahrenheit 9/11” shows an Iraqi mother agonizing over deaths in her extended family, in spite of our so-called smart bombing. In “Hearts and Minds” a Vietnamese peasant rages over the death of his daughter, killed in an off-target B-52 strike, telling the cameraman to take his daughter’s shirt, throw it in Richard Nixon’s face, and tell him that she was only a schoolgirl, 8 years old.
As much as we may want to deny it, the ways in which these two wars are different are overwhelmed by the ways in which they are the same. “Hearts and Minds,” made near the end of America’s long involvement in Vietnam, provided a bitter, humorless retrospect on a conflict that produced more than 58,000 American deaths, as well as Vietnamese deaths estimated in the millions. “Fahrenheit 9/11,” on the other hand, can’t be sure if we’re at the end or near the beginning of our adventure in Iraq. But both films make one thing clear: the arrogance, ignorance, corruption and greed that create conflicts like these — and the suffering they produce — are part of a universal lesson that we have yet to learn.
Some video stores carry “Hearts and Minds” — I managed to check out a copy from my local library — and “Fahrenheit 9/11” is widely available. Together they make a poignant double feature for anyone who still has faith in the current administration’s ability to act with wisdom and prudence in Iraq. In fact, some of the criticism of “Fahrenheit 9/11” may be defused by a viewing of “Hearts and Minds,” a film that suggests that what is happening in Iraq is something we’ve seen before, but failed to understand.
As the philosopher Santayana said in 1905: Those who forget the past are … well, you know the rest. You’ve heard it before.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail jcrisp(at)delmar.edu.)