First Kill documentary

PTSD, Veterans, Vietnam

Recently, I watched the Dutch documentary “First Kill” about the experiences of veterans and reporters during the Vietnam War. The film delves into the complex psychology of killing and the American military’s obsession with “body count” during the war. In a war where territory acquisition was difficult, the military measured its success by the number of enemies its soldiers killed.

As Nick Turse so compellingly argues in his book “Kill Anything That Moves,” the body count obsession led to the killing of countless non-combatants, including the elderly, women, and children. Each corpse was added to a unit’s tally and military leaders rarely investigated whether the corpses were actually those of Viet Cong.

What caused so many young American men to act so viciously in Vietnam? While Turse blames the military’s efforts to dehumanize Vietnamese (for instance, using racial slurs), the documentary “First Kill” suggests that the answer has more to do with crossing a moral line. After being told your whole life that murder is wrong, soldiers were put in a situation where they were expected to not only kill, but kill lots of people. Under those conditions, murder becomes normal.

As veteran Billy Heflin in “First Kill” recalls,

When I was in America I was called a baby killer, because we killed kids. It was easy to pull the trigger. Just another trigger out there. It was the enemy. They had to be killed. You didn’t think about. You didn’t say, man, I killed a little kid. You didn’t think about that.

Later in the film, Billy talks about how difficult it was for him to come back to the United States after being trained as a killer. He says he misses killing and the good feeling that came from shooting the enemy.

How does one go back to a society where killing is immoral after being told by your government to kill? Certainly, some veterans have an easier time at it than others. But for vets like Billy, it is something that they will struggle with for a long time.

For Vietnam veterans suffering from “soldier’s heart,” I recommend checking out psychotherapist Ed Tick. He and his wife lead healing journeys back to Vietnam each year with a focus on forgiveness and reconciliation.

7 thoughts on “First Kill documentary

  1. Thanks on your marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading
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  2. Hi nissa, great that you somehow got hold of my film first kill. glad to see it finds its way to the right people. best, coco

  3. Coco,
    I was wholly impressed with the documentary. I think to date, it is the most telling definition of men at war and understanding the dark side of the human psyche to kill. The doc. asks a basic question in rudimentary fashion; “Where does it come from?” The Collective Unconcious or Racial memory. Herr’s book and subsequent interview in the film summoned up the man incarnate who wrote what I believe the finest on men at war, and the killer instinct that exists within all of us. I say this because I considered him a ghost while living in Vietnam and reading dispatches. His personality showed a great dissonance with the horrors he witnessed. He was a witness to carnage, fascination and the eloquence of war.
    A question for you. I believe I ran into the African American soldier in District 1 of Saigon with the Boonie hat on, who still lives there, making a daily heroin run down a back alley by my apt. Being a veteran myself, and sensing he had dark stories, I tried to approach him but he was distant and cryptic in his remarks, often with his back turned to me. The only real conversation I had with him was his solicitation for money to obtain a taxi ride for a fix. I am sure it is him. He was in bad shape as of the summer of 2012. I understood then that if I wanted a story, I would have to help him in his addiction, which I was unable to do. Again, I fine documentary on men at war, the best I’ve ever seen, and I believe over the heads of most…… Great job in prompting questions, especially to Herr. I watched it six times. It is those stories I wish to cover and help with. Searching our hearts and an awareness of racial memory.

  4. This crossed barriers for me, the interviewees spoke straight to me, an eerie and brilliantly presented experience, one of the best documentaries ive ever seen.. Could anyone (perhaps ms coco?) direct me to a list of the music used? id be happy to purchase it on itunes, ive already tracked down a Yhat Ka song, but the rest are so underground im lost!

  5. dear Nissa, Simon and Ron, thank you for your comments, it means a lot to me that people are still watching my film. And that you saw the african american soldier, wow, his name is richard stillwell and he was very nice with us and you could feel when he entered the room when we did the interview, a big burden walked in with him, after the interview me the cameraman and the soundman were wasted and went for a drink. about the music that is hard to specify, we used some of Glenn Branca’s music, a bit of Gorecki wich you could check out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-mEWlGLkjIw but we used bits and pieces and never a whole song so I can’t really say what is what except for the throatsingers of Tuva. am working on a new film and will let you know when it is due, tnx again for your comments
    much warmth, Coco

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