From the first moments of “Sir! No Sir!” the film grabbed me and hurled me back to the sights, sounds and political taste of 1968: to the struggle to stop the war against Vietnam, to the struggle to stop the war against Black America and to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. youths who, while wearing a uniform of one of the armed forces, fought to end that war, fought racism and tried to upend the U.S. war machine.
If you lived through that period, see the film to remind yourself what it was like. If you didn’t, see it for a glimpse of what was possible, and imagine what can be possible.
Producer and director Dave Zeiger’s portrayal of the events he chose to show was accurate, though one’s heart beat faster seeing five years condensed into 90 minutes. Moving back and forth between more recent interviews and archival footage, he lets GIs and dissident officers and Jane Fonda tell their stories.
Some of the best archival footage is from the FTA—not Fun, Travel and Adventure but F—k The Army—tour that Fonda, Fred Gardner and Donald Sutherland did in 1970 as an anti-war version of Bob Hope’s USO tour. Fonda had to perform off base, but still played before tens of thousands of GIs in Japan and Okinawa.
Zeiger was himself part of what was known as the “coffee-house movement.” These were anti-war activists, youths for the most part, who set up “coffee houses” in towns near the large military bases where tens of thousands of GIs were being trained. Zeiger was at the coffee house in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood, called The Oleo Strut—named after a helicopter part.
I don’t remember ever meeting Zeiger, but we experienced many of the same events, at a different angle. I was a civilian organizer from 1967 to 1971 with the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU) and circulation manager for The Bond, the ASU’s monthly newspaper—which reached tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of GIs. In August 1968, and again in October of that year, I was in Killeen and at Fort Hood with other ASU members to help with the legal and political defense of the Black soldiers known as the Fort Hood 43.
A broad span of resistance
“Sir! No Sir!” manages to cover a broad span of military resistance. It shows the moral repugnance to an unjust war felt by officers like Capt. Howard Levy, who refused to train Special Forces to cure skin ailments—a talent they used to try to win the confidence of villagers in order to better murder the political leaders of the Vietnamese liberation movement.
It also shows how some Black soldiers, fed up with racism, identified more with the Vietnamese than with their white officers, and how all were affected by the revolutionary upsurge in the Black communities in 1968.
After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April of that year, there were rebellions in 100 U.S. cities, some of which were repressed through the intervention of the U.S. Army. So should it be any surprise that 50 to 100 Black GIs at Fort Hood, all having recently returned from a tour in Vietnam, balked at being sent to Chicago for the Democratic National Convention?
Zeiger examines “fragging”—the action by rank-and-file GIs of killing particularly vicious, racist and bloodthirsty officers and sergeants with fragmentation grenades. It happened a lot during the Vietnam War. The film focuses on the case of Billy Dean Smith, a Black activist GI who was obviously framed on a fragging charge because he was politically outspoken. He finally won the court-martial, but only after spending a long time locked up.
A number of movie reviewers in the corporate press attacked Zeiger because, to them, the film seemed sympathetic to the fragging. “Is he for violence?” one asked, apparently forgetting that those who “frag” are soldiers and marines who are trained and ordered to kill Vietnamese people who did them no harm. These troops have simply awakened and pointed their weapons at those who order them to kill.
Even more reviews chided Zeiger for “not presenting the other side.” We hope as many people watch “Sir! No Sir!” as watched the one-sided, racist “Rambo” fantasy or distortions of history like “Forrest Gump.”
The voices you hear first and most often in “Sir! No Sir!”—at least those giving the most complex explanations for their resistance—are from dissident officers like Levy and Lt. Susan Schnall, Special Forces Master Ser geant Donald Duncan and a group of Air Force codebreakers. Their explanations about why they were ready to face punishment are honest, centering on their moral revulsion to the war, in stark contrast to the hypocrisy of the Johnson and Nixon administrations and the Pentagon brass.
The movie represents best that part of the 1960s movement that was not oriented toward the working class and the class struggle, but that had a revolutionary spirit, a growing solidarity with the Black liberation struggle and with the Vietnamese and a disdain for authority.
The army in class society
There was, however, another dimension to the GI movement. The military is an instrument of rule by the capitalist class over the working class. The military’s own struc ture also reflects, in a more rigid way than in civilian life, the class differences and class privileges in society.
Instead of the civilian worker, supervisor and boss, in the army there are enlisted people, officers and generals. Rules that forbid fraternizing and make obedience to orders a prime virtue help exacerbate these differences. Breaking this rigid system, breaking the chain of command in any way, has revolutionary potential.
There’s no doubt that the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people to liberate their country was a driving force of the resistance of enlisted people inside the U.S. military, and that the Black liberation struggle had an additional impact. But in addition, the GIs who joined the ASU also hated being forced to salute their officers and call them “sir”; they hated the orders and those who handed them out; they hated the privilege of rank and wanted to elect their own struggle leaders.
This class attitude came through in “Sir! No Sir!” in the scenes with the Black enlisted men. Also in one of the interviews with a white GI in Vietnam about fragging, the interviewer asks him about attitudes toward the officers and sergeants. “Well,” the GI answers, “you know we call them ‘pigs.’ That’s our name for them.”
If you go to the site www.sirnosir.com you’ll find a schedule of where the film is showing, and lots of GI movement history—including many references to ASU organizers Pvt. Andy Stapp, Pvt. Terry Klug, Pvt. Tom Tuck and others who made it clear during the organizing from 1967 to 1974 that the battle of GIs against the Pentagon is a class struggle. They too were willing to risk punishment, but their goal was to organize enough of their class brothers and sisters to win that struggle.
Today, let’s make sure that “Sir! No Sir!” gets to this generation’s enlisted people in Iraq.