Sir! No Sir! (2006)

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.

RATING 8 / 10