There are rare incidents of single documents that change worlds. Tom Paine’s Common Sense might be one, Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s State and Revolution others, and the documentary film Sir No Sir has the potential to be yet another, if it meets a population that can be waked from the national nap.
During the U.S. invasion of Vietnam there were more than 500,000 documented troop refusals, mutinies of one size or another, more than 1,000 incidents of troops shooting or blowing up their officers: fragging. In 1968, troops from Ft. Hood were mobilized in a plan to crush protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention. A mass refusal led by black soldiers caused officers to abandon the plan, leaving the brutalization to the Chicago police and the National Guard. In 1971, the vaunted U.S. Americal division reported one incident of fragging per week in Vietnam.
At the same time, the U.S. Phoenix program, a CIA-led assassination campaign, was in the process of killing what came to be more than 30,000 Vietnamese. When questioned about the project in congressional hearings years later, CIA director William Colby said, “We took a scattergun approach. It is an imperfect universe.”
Even so, as a leading military apologist for U.S. imperialism admitted. "The morale, discipline, and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are…lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States" (Col. Robert D. Heinle, Jr.; North American Newspaper Alliance; Armed Forces Journal, June 7, 1971).
As the film, Sir No Sir!, demonstrates, this massive desertion was caused, in part, by the incessant optimistic outreach that epitomized the civil rights movement and, later, the anti-war movement. The vast change of mind among the troops that destroyed the imperialist adventures into Vietnam, where the U.S. simply trailed behind the French and Japanese fascists, occurred because, on the one hand, civilians and soldiers shared information about exactly what was going on, who was fighting and dying, and who was profiting (Brown and Root Construction, now a division of Haliburton, got their start in Vietnam, in a corrupt relationship with Lyndon Johnson).
To transform the deep-seated nationalism of the fifties McCarthy era into resistance, it took hundreds of thousands of leaflets and newspapers, usually homemade by creative people drawing on the specifics of their own situations, handed out one-by-one; thousands of impromptu conversations, and direct action—sit-ins, walkouts, small and large demonstrations, on school campuses, at draft boards, and in front of military bases.
One newspaper photograph featured in the film, a picture of teenage Marines sitting in a circle, hands raised in the V-peace sign, with a caption noting they were sentenced to more than a decade of hard labor for refusing to go to Vietnam, was used at recruiting depots, in student unions, and home visits: “What do you think their mothers felt about this?”
Over time the idea that “we are all in the same boat,” in the nation, in the Navy, in the brigade, unit, or battalion, became more, “the working class and the brass have nothing in common.” Black troops, in particular, took the lead in recognizing that they had nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, by fighting the enemies of their enemies. The racism that allowed the murders of what may have ben four million Vietnamese (“gooks,” “slopes,” etc) did not play well with black troops who could hear the reverberating, “n-----.”
Sir No Sir! does a great job documenting how, through coffee houses, entertainment (yes, Jane Fonda is featured, apparently with no regrets on her part, despite her later religious conversions), and concentrated action, people began to choose not to be instruments of their own oppression–and discovered the joy in resistance, the freedom that comes when self-analysis meshes with concrete circumstances: it’s right to resist. Early resisters like David Duncan and Howard Levy, both once committed military men who openly rebelled, are featured along with surreptitious resisters, like National Security Agency techno-spies who simply stopped translating material for their officers.
There was a price to pay, of course: time in jail or the stockade, trials of innocents, bad discharges, and some lives simply destroyed by the oxymoron, the Code of Military Justice, which sought early scapegoats for what became a flood of rebellion. Social change took considerable sacrifice.
And the war went on, and on, and on, as Johnson, Nixon, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kissinger prolonged the war, pulled out everything they had trying to win; dropping more bombs on Vietnam than was used on both sides during World War II, invading Cambodia (giving rise to the Khmer Rouge, later U.S. favorites in the United Nations), and finally attempting to simply destroy the entire infrastructure of Vietnam, from factories to the water supply, before the U.S. withdrew.
Withdrawal, however, was really a cowardly flight. American troops, spies, and politicians fled in utter panic on April 29, 1975, in the face of the onrushing Vietnamese troops. America left behind enough equipment in Vietnam to make the Vietnamese one of the best supplied militaries in the world. Also left behind were extensive lists of those Vietnamese collaborators who worked with the U.S.—proving once again that the U.S. is an unreliable ally.
On the other hand, though, it was not merely troubled consciences and revulsion at injustice or atrocities that moved the U.S. invading troops. It was also the fact they were being shot, defeated militarily, politically, and morally by a superior force. Eventually, about 58,000 U.S. troops came home in body bags and untold numbers came home in ruins. As Sir No Sir! hints, those who fought the brass and the profiteering that motivated them stayed far more sane than their comrades who did what they were told, soldiered through their tours, and came home to see millions of people in the streets opposing what they did, while the National Liberation Front continued their inexorable march to Saigon.
The Vietnamese military, led by Ho Chi Minh and General Giap, were inspired by a mix of communist egalitarianism and peasant nationalism. Starting from a tiny movement devoted to driving out the French, they had decades of experience as a guerrilla movement fighting the French and Japanese, long established supply lines, support from the U.S.S.R. and China. They at once knew the terrain, and the mass of Vietnamese people knew the U.S. invaders could never be their friends; rather, they were there to rob them. But it is testimony to the role of political motivation that the Vietnamese movement defeated the most technologically advanced military in the history of the world at that time.
U.S. elites took thirty years to re-write that history, to defeat what they still fear as the “Vietnam Syndrome,” a malady that included a civilian unwillingness to take military casualties which created a reinvention of fascist blitzkrieg tactics, lightning wars relying on air campaigns, mass bombings, as in Yugoslavia and the first Gulf War, “Desert Storm.”
At the same time, it was necessary to find a way to heroize the rank and file of the military again. This took at least four aspects: claiming that the US troops were hampered by civilian leaders who were too restrained (not using the A-bomb for example), claiming that returning Vietnam vets were relentlessly abused, spat upon, by anti-war activists (no one spat on Vietnam vets, and nobody abused them as much as their own government, denying them rudimentary medical care), claiming U.S. forces are the “finest fighting forces in the world,” (this fighting force hasn’t won a major engagement since WWII, and it played second fiddle to the USSR and Red China then) and wiping out the memory of the massive soldier resistance movement in school social studies texts, film, and popular culture (hardly anyone in San Diego, for example, knows that entire ships, including aircraft carriers, could not leave port because of sailor uprisings).
Sir No Sir is a direct challenge to all of this. Because the powerful documentary is well-researched, yet passionate, the film will be especially useful in classrooms, perhaps offsetting the lies of ambitious military recruiters.
At issue, with great difficulty, is when we become what we do. When does an apparently innocent, religious, nationalist, teenager who invades another nation, neither in his/her own interest or in the interest of those being invaded; when does this person become a war criminal—when the entire operation is a war crime? What is the source of the audacity that says, everyone in authority is wrong? Or, perhaps more on point: Where does the phantasmagoric courage to be the first to say, “Sir, No Sir!” come from, when it is clear someone must be first?
Still, there are some lessons from the era of the anti-war movement. Here are just three: a small number of people can initiate social change, quantity can turn into quality, that is, handing out one flyer at a time can eventually forge a movement, and last: What you do counts.
The international war of the rich on the poor is intense now. Whose side will you choose?