What do you think of when you hear the words “Viet Nam AntiWar Movement” or “AntiWar Movement of the Sixties”?
The odds are that you think of a peaceful, colourful, noisy demonstration of hippies and college kids confronting the uniformed forces of State power — peace signs and tie-dye, protesters placing flowers into the barrels of police guns; of students being tear gassed and shot at Kent State; of folk music, Woodstock, the ubiquitous peace-sign symbol on jewelry and posters; of pretty long-haired girls and boys playing guitars and calling US soldiers “baby killers”; of Jane Fonda, still vilified on bumperstickers throughout the Red States, making her famous trip to North Viet Nam; and perhaps the durable image of a “hippie chick” spitting on a returning veteran at an airport, and bitter Viet Nam vets loathing “those goddamn hippies” and “commie-huggers”.
In other words, you’ll most likely think of a movement of young people in civilian society — students and draft resisters — mostly on college campuses, mostly white middle/upper class kids, in direct and hostile opposition to the armed forces as well as the government.
What you most likely won’t think of — unless you remember it personally — is the veterans’ and soldiers’ anti-war movement. You won’t think of the song “Soldier We Love You,” and you won’t remember that the FTA Show in which Jane Fonda starred draw cheering crowds of US soldiers throughout its tour of Pacific Asia. You won’t remember soldiers in Viet Nam wearing peace signs in place of their dog tags, or going to jail for refusing combat duty. You probably won’t remember radical Black soldiers making a direct connection between US policy in Viet Nam and US policy in the inner cities. Memory of the pivotal social moment of the Sixties has been selectively edited (especially through the sugar-coated amnesia pills cranked out by the Hollywood vending machine). The soldiers’ and veterans’ antiwar movement has been erased from the public’s memory.
This is why David Zeiger decided he had to make a documentary about the antiwar movement that we’ve been taught to forget: the antiwar movement that organised itself in barracks, on aircraft carriers, in country, at listening posts, in the line for mess hall. His film is called Sir! No Sir! and in this viewer’s opinion it’s one of the best documentaries of recent years.
One of the strengths of Zeiger’s film is that it doesn’t start by systematically deconstructing a catalogue of lies about the Viet Nam War resistance movement (though there are so many, and such ripe targets for debunking). This is not a defensive or reactive documentary. Instead, it starts by telling the story from the beginning, in eyewitness testimony drawn from hours of interviews with a core group of war resisters from inside the US military. Debunking urban legends like the “spitting hippie chick” is saved for the second half, and is an easier task after we’ve had a guided tour of the situation and heard the stories for ourselves. The object of the first half is to take us back in time, to make the Viet Nam War era real to us, to help us place ourselves in the shoes of the young people who were caught up in the draft and the resistance — to meet them as they were then, and as they are now, looking back. The montage of interview voice-overs, still photos, and video clips works exceptionally well to take us back in time.
The film opens with an audio excerpt from Radio First-Termer, one of the underground GI radio stations that operated in Viet Nam; against its selfconsciously rebellious voiceover we see footage from a US aerial attack force, napalm explosions and clouds of smoke in the wake of the planes, devastation sown across the beautiful countryside. Cue up “Soldier Boy,” a girl-group classic from the early Sixties. Then the interviewees start to talk, looking back on how they joined the armed forces, what they believed, how they felt at the time, what it was like to come from military families, from a long tradition of soldiering and patriotism, and still find themselves in such doubt about what they were doing… “And we came to the conclusion… Let’s hope we’re doing the right thing, ’cause that’s where we’re going.” “I was really proud of what I thought I was doing. The problem I had was realising that what I was doing was not good.” Donald Duncan, Robert Levy, one after the other they explain how they came to a moment when conscience forced them to rebel against military authority.
The people being interviewed are some of the first US military personnel to ‘blow the whistle’ and face disciplinary action for refusing to carry out their assigned duties as part of the Viet Nam war effort. The film recounts the jail sentences handed out after courts martial for the early resisters; soldiers who refused to go, a doctor who refused to provide training to US soldiers, a decorated Ranger who refused to return and resigned from the service, Black soldiers convicted for holding meetings to discuss the racial politics of the war. “A majority of men that I met in the service were opposed [to the war]…”
The Tet Offensive in 1968 revealed that “victory” was nowhere near; the GI peace movement gained momentum as the gap between official government lies and the reality on the gound became more and more obvious and painful. At about this time, nine young men in San Francisco went AWOL (July 1968) taking refuge in a church and refusing to go to Viet Nam. They chained themselves to ministers, but eventually the military arrived with bolt cutters, separated them from their clerical protectors and confined them in the Presidio. The “Nine for Peace” reminisce about their jail time; meanwhile in the outside world, veterans and conscripts were organising the first Viet Nam Veterans peace march. In a stroke of genius, the activists drop antiwar leaflets from a small private plane onto military bases in California — imitating the propaganda methods of the Americans in Viet Nam who were dumping leaflets on the “enemy”.
And all of this happens in the first few minutes of the film! It has the appeal of a gripping thriller, without having to fictionalise or dramatise its material. Even in writing this review it seems easier and more appropriate to let the subjects speak for themselves; their voices tell the story — and their faces, which you’ll have to see the movie to appreciate.
The film continues to weave together contemporary television news coverage and archival footage with audio and video of interviews with the survivors, who discuss the fear and overreaction of the authorities. “I kinda came in as an AWOL and within 2 days of hitting the stockade, ya know, I was facing the death sentence — for singing We Shall Overcome.”
Those who saw combat recall confusion and the failure of meaning… “And the sergeant said, here’s this gook you killed, you did a good job. And I seen this guy and he was about my age, and… and I started thinking, ya know, why is he dead and I’m alive, it’s just a matter of pure luck. And I started thinking, I wonder if he had a girlfriend and how his mother’s gonna find out and things like that. And when you’ve been through an experience of that nature and you find out that it’s all lies and they’re just lying to the American people, and your silence means that you’re part of keeping that lie going… I couldn’t stop, I mean I couldn’t be silent, I had a responsibility to my friends and to the country in general. And to the Vietnamese. The last guy that I shot, I don’t consider he was the first guy I shot, but he was the first guy I shot where I was shooting it out barrel-to-barrel with him and looked him in the face afterwards, and I felt a certain amount of responsibility to him. To make it that his life — his death — not be in vain, meant that I had to try and advocate for the justness that he was fighting for. And I believe that he was fighting for his country. So I became involved in the Movement, that’s what happened with me.”
The film recalls the establishment of the GI coffeehouses, organised by civilian anti-war activists in support of anti-war soldiers. They offered live music, radical newspapers, community, sympathy, poetry, and the presence of returned GIs who warned raw recruits about what they could expect in country. The coffeehouses predictably came under attack: some were legally harasssed, some were trashed, some were burnt out by either pro-war local yahoos or government agents.
By 1969/70 there were GI activist groups all over the military; and the military leadership started to panic. Coffeehouses and GI organisers were persecuted by any legal means possible. “One whole wall was an American flag painted upside down — the stars part of it was a toilet seat. And if you lifted the toilet seat up, there was Lyndon Johnson’s picture. And when the police officer who came in to examine the place saw that, he just hit the roof… I spent 13 days in this little jail that still had a trapdoor from when they did lynchings, from before the Civil War, there was a hook up on the wall… but we weren’t going away.”
“But in defending those centres [coffeehouses] to exist, it pulled us off the base, which was where we were effective and powerful. Put us in a coffeehouse and we were just like another bunch of young people in a coffeehouse. But put us in a barracks with a stack of papers around us, and we were f—ing Atlas.” And thus began the underground newspaper phenomenon: subversive zines duplicated either outside or inside the military base, for a soldier audience. “What I liked about it was that officers hated it. That had to be good.” The zines multiplied faster than the military could suppress them. “If you were caught distributing literature on base, that was a court-martial offence.” “There must have been close to 300 anti-war newspapers written, produced and published on bases all throughout the world. It was wherever there were GIs, American GIs in the world.” A lightning montage of the zine covers makes it very clear how raw and angry was the satire, how sharp the political consciousness of the writers.
The film makes its inevitable visit with Jane Fonda, making it clear that the GI press and the GI movement existed first — the soldiers themselves invented the “FTA” tag line well before Michael Alaimo and Jane Fonda did their comedy skits in what became the FTA Show, the anti-war answer to Bob Hope’s travelling vaudeville. Fonda: “We are coming in response to what is probably the most powerful movement going on in this country — the movement of the men inside the military, and women, who are beginning to understand how they are being used and what the nature of American foreign policy is. And we come there because they have asked us to…” The footage of uniformed GIs cheering and applauding as the FTA Show players mock the government, the war, and the army, is surprising to anyone who has (and haven’t most of us?) accepted the revised version of the history of those years: the anti-war movement was not some civilian phenomenon hostile to and separate from the US troops. The heart of the movement was the GI resistance. The civilian antiwar movement was largely in support of the GI refuseniks.
Another element of the antiwar movement that has been officially forgotten was the role of Black troops who consciously connected the genocidal tactics used against the Vietnamese with the repression and paramilitary police occupation of Black neighbourhoods back home. “I seen Charlie, Luke the Gook, whatever you wan’ call him, NVA, right there layin down, as I walk by; I look at him, he looks at me, and I’m goin about my business, this man ain’t doin me nothin, he ain’t hurtin me in no type of way, he ain’t hurtin none of my Black people, none of my families, so why should I shoot him?” “The only place a Black man should fight is where he is being oppressed. And I’m not being oppressed in Japan, I’m not being oppressed in Viet Nam, I’m not being oppressed in Pakistan.” “I remember one day the first sergeant was talking about Gooks. Show you how naive I was, I didn’t know that Gook was a racial slur. I didn’t really understand that, yeah. And I remember one day he was talking about Gooks and a light went off in my head and I said Wow, a Gook is the same thing as a Nigger.” The military responded with heavy handed repression, jailing Black soldiers merely for doing “the dap,” a complex handshake exchanged to express solidarity and Black resistance. The stockades in Viet Nam filled up with Black GIs.
“There’s always something that reminds you of the things that you’ve done in Viet Nam, the things that you’ve seen. I seen what I saw, what was going on in the States. Dudes are running down the streets wearing the same kind of uniform that I got. They’re in Memphis. They’re beating up on people — wait a minute. We’re over here beatin up on people over here, and you’re beatin up on Black people, dogs are running everywhere, tanks are on the streets…” In 1968, uniformed soldiery were used against US citizens on US soil. “We just got back from fighting the North Vietnamese and now they want us to fight the Americans.”
The police riot at the Democratic Convention was not augmented by troops, though a contingent was sent and held in reserve; “They had to keep them off the streets: it was no longer certain which side the GIs were on.”
Also in 1968, in the Spring, the My Lai massacre took place. For over a year the US military pretended that only “enemy soldiers” were killed, but the news got out. It was whispered from recruit to recruit in line for mess hall at the training bases, and even civilians became aware; the scandal raised a stink around the world. The Winter Soldier Investigation was instigated by troops, to show that My Lai and events like it were not “an isolated instance of aberrant behaviour” but fully conformant with US policy; VVAW was founded. “Why are they going after Calley, when Calley was doing precisely what we were all told to do when we were in Viet Nam, essentially: which was Kill them All, and Sort it Out Later.” No one over the rank of Lieutenant was prosecuted for the My Lai massacre [sound familiar?]. During the Winter Soldier hearings, GIs testified to the brutalising tactics of basic training and the brutality that they witnessed and/or committed in country. “And I went and listened to the three days of testimony and came away emotionally drained and floored by it. I never grasped, even up to that point, how powerful was the genocidal plans and strategy of the US towards the Vietnamese people — on every level, whether it was Agent Orange or Dow Chemical reconfiguring the napalm, ’cause the napalm wasn’t sticking to the Vietnamese skin enough…”
In response to the growing failure in Viet Nam, Nixon invaded Cambodia [sound familiar?]. The National Guard at Kent State opened fire on protesters with lethal ammo and killed four students. And the soldiers marched and demonstrated along with civilians outside military bases, those at Fort Hood declaring “Armed Farces Day” in mockery of Armed Forces Day. More seriously, morale was collapsing in country, with drug use, desertion, mutiny and fragging on the rise. Nixon announced “Vietnamisation” [substituting locals for US troops -- sound familiar?] combined with an aggressive air bombardment campaign [sound familiar?]. US troops were no longer officially in combat; but in practise, small units were stranded on the border between Viet Nam and Cambodia, facing orders to go out on reconnaissance and night ambush in the face of vastly superior force. Some units refused to go; one unit wrote a petition which they smuggled back to “the outside world”: “In the event of mass prosecution of our unit, our only hope would be public opinion.” US troops started refusing to fight. “I’ve seen more than one big group meeting where actually all they talk about is fragging, as we call ‘em, pigs.” “By pigs you’re talking about your senior enlisted men and your officers?” “That’s correct, that’s one of our most common terms.” Unsurprisingly, Black antiwar soldiers were made scapegoats for these violent rebellions. The film-maker goes in some detail into the tragic case of Billy Dean Smith, scapegoated and jailed for a fragging that he almost certainly did not commit.
“Many of us are very convinced that Nixon had to go to an air war because he couldn’t trust us on the ground. And for good reason. We were shooting his officers and refusing direct orders to go in to combat.”
We meet a team of listeners who monitored North Vietnamese radio frequencies to estimate the damage wrought by US air strikes; by eavesdropping on emergency services and military units, the listeners would produce “Bomb Damage Assessments” which would be processed into executive reports for the Joint Chiefs and the White House. “One of the things about me, that changed my mind, was that I knew what was happening in country was not what was being told to the people of the United States.” “The bombing of populated areas, civilian areas, the bombing of hospitals, things that the US denied over and over and over again that we were engaged in, those are things that we were engaged in, and we had access to that information, and the lies were so stark, you know, it challenged your own dignity, it challenged your loyalty, it challenged your humanity…” “If we did our job right, we would save the lives of Americans. If we did our jobs right it would cost the lives of tens of thousands of Vietnamese… we had to do something… we were going to do as much as we could in this last year of our service, to end the war in Viet Nam.”
“So we were burning our commander in effigy, and I looked up and there was a large group of people on the perimeter that had circled us, and it was the Security Police. And they were starting to close in on us. And they had dogs. And once they got close enough to figure out what we were doing… they joined us.”
In response to the air war launched from carriers, a group of Navy officers organised to prevent their carrier (Constitution) from leaving San Diego. “It’s part of the air power that we use to attack peasants. It’s the weapon of a bully. It’s a weapon of aggression.” In search of an action to protest the deployment of Constitution to SE Asia, activist officers thought of holding an election on the ship to ask the crew whether they want to be deployed; then the project grew, with tables outside supermarkets, surveying the general public in San Diego and trying to take an informal vote on whether “Connie” should stay home. The project got high visibility; authorities responded with “tough talk” statements about malcontents who would of course be disregarded.
Then Kissinger and Nixon decided to “bomb Viet Nam back to the Stone Age” as a farewell message before the Americans left. “I think everybody that was involved in our operations was faced with the stark reality of participating in something which bordered on what we considered to be criminal, genocidal, unprecedented. So we felt very much in solidarity with other GIs who were refusing to participate, particularly people refusing to fly B52s over the North. People stopped producing the intelligence product that we were supposed to be producing…” “The Air Force was no longer a reliable instrument for carrying out the war.”
The Viet Nam war ended on April 30th 1975 — partly due to the courageous and determined efforts of the GI anti-war movement. And the rewriting of history started right away.
The power of this rewriting is emphasised in a wonderful interview with Jerry Lembcke, author of The Spitting Image, an investigation of the urban legend of the “spat-upon US Veteran” returning from Viet Nam. He could not find any documentary evidence that any such incident ever took place, and deconstructs various forms of the urban legend with wry humour. “If you went back and looked at the front pages of newspapers in 1969, 1970, what were you gonna see on the front pages of newspapers about Viet Nam vets? They’re in the streets. They’re political activists. They’re on the Capitol Mall. They’re giving the Nixon Administration fits. This stuff was in living rooms all over America. So people knew this, and this is an important piece we’re talking about, how memory about the war has been re-written, has been reconstructed. This is gone. This has been erased. This had been displaced.”
The purpose of this documentary is to remember what has been erased. It closes with the beautiful young Rita Martinson singing the classic anti war song “Soldier We Love You”:
I read that you took a stand
and refused to kill in Viet Nam
you said no man was your enemy
if what he’s fighting for is to be free
soldier we love you
yeah soldier we love you
standing strong ’cause it’s hard to do
what you know you must do, cause you know that it’s true
yes it’s true
they’ll lock you up in their stockade
yeah they’ll lock you up ’cause they’re afraid…
“They tried to turn me into a killer. They tried to turn me into someone who could take another life. If there’s one thing that I’ve accomplished, it’s that I didn’t allow that to happen.”
The film is dedicated to the memory of two antiwar GIs who died from Agent Orange poisoning — which the US government denied and covered up for as long as it possibly could [sound familiar?].
“Sir No Sir” is a haunting documentary. It reminds us how easily and convincingly history can be rewritten in the space of a generation. And it presses us to ask, where is the antiwar movement of our day? The lies are just as “stark” as they were in ’68-’75: they challenge our own dignity, our own humanity just as they did then. When will human conscience rebel? Will the US troops now in Iraq ever come to question their mission and their purpose there? Will there come a day when the Bush White House, or the Clinton or Obama White House, will find that it cannot trust its grunts on the ground, and its Air Force is no longer a reliable instrument for carrying out genocidal policy in the name of realpolitik? And what can we do, to hasten that day? In a sense, ‘Sir No Sir’ answers questions that we’ve been taught not to ask; but it also asks questions for which we don’t have answers.
Maybe we should try to catch the NOW show on deserters and refuseniks (Airdate: Friday, August 24, 2007 at 8:30 p.m. EDT on PBS):
On Friday, August 24, we talk to two soldiers who went AWOL and eventually left the Army, but who took very different paths. NOW captures the moment when one man turns himself in, and when another applies for refugee status in Canada, becoming one of the 20,000 soldiers who have deserted the Army since the war in Iraq began. Each describes what drove him to follow his conscience over his call to duty, and what penalties and criticism were endured as a result.
“I see things differently, having lived through the experience,” former Army medic Agustin Aguayo tells NOW. “When I returned from Iraq, after much reflection I knew deep within me I could never go back.”
(This Friday Film Review was published early so that interested readers could check out the NOW show.)
History may not repeat itself, but perhaps it really does rhyme.
[Note: the DVD release contains many, many minutes of additional interview footage, all of it well worth watching and quoting. But I had to stop somewhere. This is one DVD worth owning. --DeA]