The fact that Sir! No Sir! closes with the Coup’s “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem” is not a little disturbing. The track is sharp and the lyrics are relevant, but its utter appropriateness for a film about the GI antiwar movement during the Vietnam war underlines the awful sameness of then and now. For, even as the documentary makes the case that the history of the movement has been revised to suit subsequent political and cultural agendas, the language in current news reports and official statements about the war in Iraq is sounding alarmingly like the language deployed back in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Directed by David Zeiger and narrated by Troy Garity (whose mother, Jane Fonda is a prominent interview subject), Sir! No Sir! traces the movement’s development by way of the usual talking head interviews and artifact displays. As the Shirelles sing “Soldier Boy” and a plane soars away from a Southeast Asian jungle, the point of view shot suggests not the romance promised by the soldier’s girl back home, but the brutal devastation left behind by U.S. munitions. War, the documentary establishes right off, is mythic and ruinous.
The stories that follow are specific and sadly repetitive, in the sense that they all revolve around the personal discovery that the mythic part is all too calculated, a means to make victims of aggressors and vice versa. The stories of troops’ resistance begin small, at the level of personal decisions to refuse orders. And it’s not hard to see why men and women were inspired to resist. The official and sometimes under-the-radar tactics are astonishing—at once inept and ferocious. Dr. Howard Levy, a dermatologist in the army, recalls his orders, to train Green Beret special forces to administer dermatological “band-aids” of help to villagers’ children (say, treatments for impetigo), in order to “win hearts and minds,” at the same time that U.S. forces were daily ” bombing the jell out of ‘em.” When he found the training he was providing “immoral and medically unethical,” and stopped providing it, he was court-martialed and spent three years in prison.
Donald Duncan (U.S. Army Special Forces) became famous in 1966 when he refused to participate anymore in what he describes as “sickening” practices, including handing over prisoners to ARVN (South Vietnamese Army Regulars) forces, who would torture them (photos show prisoners hung upside from a tree and held at knifepoint). Duncan appears on a 1966 Ramparts magazine cover with the caption, “I quit!”, as he says he found the U.S. military’s cynicism “really sickening part of it.”
These early resisters, both describing their protests as “personal,” soon give way to organized efforts to make clear GIs’ misgivings about the war as a mission (its lack of direction, planning, and sense) and the specific tasks they were ordered to perform on a day to day basis. At times the documentary rehearses once well-known and now mostly forgotten information: Tet 1968 was a “turning point,” as the North Vietnamese demonstrated that it had civilian supporters against the U.S. By July of 1968, GIs in San Francisco—named the Nine for Peace—claimed sanctuary in churches and chained themselves to priests (considered a first antiwar protest organized by GIs).
Many resisters, including those who went AWOL, were imprisoned in the Presidio stockade. Marches and other public demonstrations followed, including the dissemination of leaflets at military bases, picketing, marches, and newspapers and broadsheets (including the memorable “Worm’s Eye View,” a paper named for the “lowest” perspective, and the acronym for “We Openly Resist Military Stupidity”), and, in the case of the Presidio 27, a sit-in in the prison yard following the shooting death of Michael Bunch, a young GI who was trying to escape. With this sit-down, Garity says, “The GI movement had arrived.”
While the documentary notes that the movement was for a long time piecemeal, and separate from other anti-war and civil rights movements of the era (the Black Panthers, for one), its participants borrowed strategies and gathered steam (after all, it had years to develop, as the war went on and on). GI coffeehouses drew attention within the military, and some high-profile cases drew national attention (as when Louis Font, a West Point and Harvard graduate, refused to go to war and lost his career: “Thirty-four years later,” he says, “I know I did the right thing.”
Other right and costly things featured in Sir! No Sir! include the 1971 Winter Soldier investigation, organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War (some footage appears in this film; the original film version will finally be available on DVD this month from New Yorker Video). For several days, GIs testified to atrocities they had perpetrated and witnessed in Vietnam. As Joe Bangert (U.S. Marines) says, it “wasn’t really in defense of [Lt. William] Calley [singled out for punishment following the My Lai massacre], but going after the notion that the policies of the U.S. military created things like My Lai.” Bangert says the point was to expose “the truth”: “You can’t put up a smokescreen and say, [in the words they used back then, it was an ‘isolated instance of aberrant behavior’... Calley was doing precisely what we were told to do when we were in Vietnam, essentially? Which is, kill them all, and sort it out later.”
With these testimonies and increased visibility of VVAW, Joe Urgo says, “You weren’t just coming home saying, ‘I’m against the war.’ You’re saying, ‘This is what we did. This is how we did it. This was a crime, this was wrong.’” And this process, he says, “helped people to really cross the bridge and to see us in a way that the antiwar movement hadn’t really seen GIs before.”
Antiwar GIs were at the time categorized as traitors and troublemakers. Billy Dean Smith was arrested for fragging his commanding officer, in a trumped up case that left him—even after he was acquitted, in dire emotional and other straits (he ended up living on the streets and is currently imprisoned). As it collects documents, photos, and memories, Sir! No Sir! insists that we remember what happened, as much as possible. Those recording their memories include David Cline (wounded three times in country), Keith Mather (who went into exile in Canada for 18 years), and Randy Rowland, all U.S. Army and outspoken critics of the war. As Cline puts it, following an incident in Vietnam where he was shot and then congratulated for killing his shooter, he was struck as he looked at the dead man’s face and wondered about his family, by the fact that his government was “lying to the American people. I couldn’t be silent. I felt that I had a responsibility to my friends, to the country in general, and to the Vietnamese.”
Folks back home also felt responsibilities, including Jane Fonda, who appears here in archival footage as well as in her very fine home (a marked contrast with the meager surroundings of the vets), speaks not as “Hanoi Jane,” but as a welcome celebrity contributor to a movement. She traveled with a group called FTA (“Fuck the Army”) to raise consciousness and expose spreading antiwar sentiment; as she said at the time, the group was “not trying to tell the people on the bases anything they don’t know.”
At times, in assembling so much information, the film leaves some connections vague. Long Binh Jail (LBJ), the primary incarceration center in Vietnam, produced repeated uprisings in 1967 and 1968, including riots when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Such dissent was not precisely part of an organized movement, and in fact, more likely represented the ways that the inmates—some 90% black inmates (the film notes that in this, the prison resembled facilities in the U.S.)—were reacting to racism in the military and back home. The military successfully repressed news of what went on at LBJ, so that to this day, precious little information is disseminated.
While Sir! No Sir! does not go into detail about LBJ, it does make this important point, that “history” was and continues to be rewritten. While this process certainly allows catastrophes like the war in Iraq to go on (the six generals’ recent stand-up against Rumsfeld draws on this notion, with Lt. General Greg Newbold using the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” to make the case that with history forgotten or, more often, revised, that military and civilian “deciders” make mistakes again and again).
The current U.S. wars, including “tactical errors” and growing opposition to them, suggest that the reworking of history is an ongoing, even standard practice. As Sir! No Sir! presents the memories of those who stood up, it puts official pronouncements in perspective, such as Kissinger’s infamous declaration, “We believe that peace is at hand,” even as the administration was secretly bombing in Cambodia. The point here, as ever, is the discrepancy (even the collision) between history and memory, the public and personal experiences that all reframe the war. In the end, though, truth and reconciliation—however disparate these may be—remain crucial. As Terry Whitmore, a Marine who escaped to Stockholm during the war, now says it, “Then you think about this shit man, and you say, ‘Goddamn, did I do that? Did I actually live in that shit? Did this government push me into this shit?’” Terrible questions, they are also necessary.