Oscar-winning Vietnam documentary brings back the horror of war

In honor of the 40th anniversary of "Hearts and Minds" the Santa Monica College Associated Students, in conjunction with the SMC history department, held a screening of the 1974 Oscar-winning documentary in the Humanities and Social Sciences building last Friday afternoon.

"Our vision of progress is not limited to our own country. We extend it to all the peoples of the world."

This quote by former United States President Harry S. Truman is heard in the first five minutes of the film, which focuses on the U.S. war in Vietnam that lasted throughout the 1960s and into the early 1970s.

The weight of Truman's words, which were spoken at the end of World War II, hang heavy throughout the film and resonate deeply within its overall message.

The film itself is filled with beautiful images of the Vietnam countryside, shocking acts of violence, heartbreaking recounts of brutality, death, and loss, and is ultimately a time capsule of a nation at a time of immense political and social debate.

The generation called on to fight in Vietnam were the children of those who, some 20 years before, had defeated the Nazis. America had just become a global superpower and national patriotism was high. As such, the film focuses on the conflict between those who protested the war and those who felt it was America's duty to crush the rise of communism in Vietnam.

Images of thousands of protesters gathering on the mall in Washington, D.C. displayed the nation's opposition to the occupation of Vietnam, while veterans of the war were seen throwing their medals at the Capitol building in anger and frustration.

Veterans, many of whom lost limbs in the field of battle, gave heartbreaking accounts of things they saw, horrors that took place, and actions they were ordered to carry out during the conflict.

In an interview with former airman Randy Floyd, the veteran breaks down in tears when remembering his dropping of poison gas and explosives over the rice fields outside Vietnamese villages.

"People would suffer, I look at my children now and I don't know what I would think about if someone napalmed," Floyd states in the documentary.

In one of the film's most heartbreaking moments, a Vietnamese funeral service is shown. The sobbing mother and siblings of a young soldier are shown mourning the loss of their loved one.

When the casket of the young man is lowered into the earth the mother attempts to climb in, sobbing uncontrollably, and needs to be restrained by two attendants.

These moments of intense reality remind viewers of the scars and searing consequences of war. The unflinching attitude the filmmakers had to present the fundamental humanity of the Vietnamese people that was, in many cases, violated serves a sobering reminder of the weight of such lofty decisions such as the invasion and occupation of a foreign country.

After the screening Zack Norman, who was a producer of "Hearts and Minds," spoke to the audience about the film.

"It was hard to get this made. Columbia was going to bury the picture. We told them we were going to give them their money back, and they couldn't say anything about that," Norman said.

The film was eventually bought by Warner Bros. and held its first screening in Los Angeles in December of 1974. In April of 1975, "Hearts and Minds" won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film at the Oscars.

The film is poignant today, as America is still entrenched in the Middle East. The occupation of Vietnam had been the longest running foreign conflict in American history until recently, when the American occupation of Afghanistan has now lasted even longer.

After 40 years "Hearts and Minds" contains recognizable shadows of American foreign policy in 2014, whether or not that is a frightening or saddening fact is left to the individual.