Reviews

Sir! No Sir! (2006)

Shaun Huston

Sir! No Sir! uses the personal stories of non-cooperators to argue that it was identification with "the enemy", a recognition of the humanity in individual Vietnamese people, that prompted combat and support personnel to refuse orders and quit the military.


Sir! No Sir!

Director: David Zeiger
Cast: Troy Garity (narrator), Jane Fonda
Distributor: Docurama
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Balcony Releasing
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2006-12-19

Sir! No Sir! documents the anti-war movement that emerged within the military during the War in Vietnam. This is a timely story, but writer, director, and producer David Zeiger smartly resists the temptation to make overt connections between the War in Iraq and the War in Vietnam. By remaining firmly grounded in the times and places of its subject, Sir! No Sir! stands as a work of more lasting relevance than it would have been had it veered into an analogy for the present. It can, and is clearly meant to, be read as a text with relevance to Iraq. However, by framing itself as a recovered history about America and Vietnam, rather than as a polemic against the US campaign in Iraq, the film allows viewers to approach it from a variety of approaches, and not just from where they stand on the current intervention (or the one in Afghanistan for that matter).

Sir! No Sir!, as its title implies, is primarily about non-cooperation on the part of soldiers in Vietnam. The film begins with former Green Beret Donald Duncan and Army medical trainer Dr. Howard Levy. Duncan caused a media furor by quitting the Special Forces before his time was up. Levy found himself court-martialed and imprisoned for refusing to train GIs in basic medical procedures that the Army believed could help in the battle for Vietnamese "hearts and minds". Quitting and refusing orders are the primary means by which the movement expressed itself.

Sir! No Sir! tells its stories in a very conventional, almost Ken Burns-like style, right down to zooming and panning on archival still photographs. Its narrative is organized through present-day interviews with participants and family members and illustrated by archival film and photos. A narrator, Troy Garity, periodically moves the chronology forward. While primarily a linear in structure and covering 1966 to 1971, different years are associated with different facets or moments in the development of the movement, such as Duncan and Levy's first acts of resistance, GI coffee houses, and the intersection of the civil rights and anti-war movements. Ultimately, while conventional in style, Sir! No Sir! articulates an unconventional interpretation of the War in Vietnam and the nature of US military power, particularly in the developing world.

It is easy, and convenient, to think of soldiers who refuse orders or who quit as cowards or disloyal, or, in the case of Vietnam, evidence of the moral corruption of the counter culture, but Sir! No Sir! uses the personal stories of non-cooperators to argue that it was identification with "the enemy", a recognition of the humanity in individual Vietnamese people, that prompted combat and support personnel to refuse orders and quit the military. The power disparities between Vietnam and the United States was often instrumental in this realization, a point driven home in the documentary's look at the intertwining of the peace and civil rights movements. Too many soldiers found themselves confronting the "why" questions -- Why am I here? Why am I killing these people? -- without any good answers. This, and not fear of combat, lack of patriotism, or infection by "hippies", is what drove the military anti-war movement.

Similar to this re-visioning of the non-cooperating soldiers is the film's rewriting of Jane Fonda, transforming her from her infamous "Hanoi Jane" persona into a friend of the grunt. Fonda, and the other entertainers in the FTA shows, rather than giving comfort to the enemy, gave comfort to those who had to kill in the America's name and, more importantly, were having second thoughts about it (FTA stands for "Free" or "Fuck The Army", a play on the Army's official slogan, "Fun, Travel, Adventure"). This reworking of Fonda's image pertains to domestic, civilian dissent in general, suggesting that one's position on US military adventures in other countries cannot simply be reduced to whether one is for or against the troops. What poses the biggest problem for political leaders and military brass at home and officers in the field is that it is the troops themselves who make this calculation more difficult than for or against; the soldiers on the ground are far more independent than their civilian and military leaders, and perhaps the public at large, would like or imagine.

The next to last of act of the film addresses the policy of "Vietnamization" and the shift away from use of US ground forces and towards providing air support to the South Vietnamese Army. Airpower has come to be understood as the American trump card, the bringer of "shock and awe", but Sir! No Sir! suggests that attacking from above is a political strategy, one aimed at literally creating distance between US personnel and those they are deployed to fight. Vietnamization was a way of containing the growing anti-war movement amongst, particularly, the Army infantry. However, the film argues that this strategy failed in Vietnam not least because those responsible for listening in on Vietnamese communications were no less likely to identify with the "enemy" than those on the ground. The anti-war genie could not be put back into the bottle.

Most profoundly, and as its tagline, "If you ever wanted to end a war ..." implies, Sir! No Sir! offers a radical reinterpretation of why the War in Vietnam ended the way it did. Perhaps the most common narrative about Vietnam holds that the US "lost" because political leaders in Washington, DC did not provide sufficient support for the troops on the ground. Mired in debates about whether the war was right or wrong, and worried about public opinion, the civilian leadership held back too much to win. Another narrative, one rooted in hindsight, suggests that the war was never winnable and it was folly to intervene in the first place. Sir! No Sir! rejects both of these propositions, arguing that it was mass non-cooperation within the military, and especially within the Army, that brought the war to an end. Given the implications of this argument for the exercise of US power abroad, it is not difficult to understand why it isn't a position that gets aired very often, least of all by those in official circles of power.

The DVD version of Sir! No Sir! includes a professional biography for director David Zeiger and additional interviews and archival materials. The extra footage primarily offers further elaboration on the stories included in the film, and details about certain facets of the movement, the effort to unionize the Army, for example, that only get passing mention in the theatrical cut. There is also video of a fundraising event for the film that included remarks by Cindy Sheehan and Jane Fonda. This bonus feature draws the kind of clear, direct connections between the War in Vietnam and the current one in Iraq that are bypassed in the documentary itself.

Two days after receiving my review copy of Sir! No Sir! a Nation: story titled, "About face: soldiers call for Iraq withdrawal"appeared in my RSS feeds (16 December 2006). The article points to the Appeal for Redress , a project of Iraq Veterans Against the War, Military Families Speak Out, and Veterans for Peace that invites active duty military personnel to write messages opposing the War in Iraq to their members of Congress and US Senators. The Nation piece includes excerpts of interviews with signers, many of whom appear to have joined the appeal out of a growing sense that the US engagement in Iraq is pointless and likely illegal. It would seem, once again, that those sent to fight on behalf of the US have their own ideas about what they are being asked to do, and some are beginning to struggle with the same kinds of "why" questions that stumped soldiers in Vietnam.

Sir! No Sir! helps to contextualize anti-war sentiments among personnel in Iraq, but leaves it to viewers to make those connections for themselves. In leaving those connections to the audience, the film makes it possible for each movement to produce its own meaning, and avoids shoehorning the present into the past, or vice versa.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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