There is archival footage of Jane Fonda in David Zeiger's documentary Sir! No Sir! that will come as something of a revelation to many viewers.
It's not that the actress seen actively protesting the war in Vietnam — everyone has seen that Jane Fonda — it's that she's seen actively protesting the war at rallies full of enlisted men.
In other words, the very troops she is so often accused of betraying.
Sir! No Sir! recounts the largely (and, Zeiger suggests, deliberately) forgotten story of the huge military movement to stop the war in Vietnam. It's a story Fonda figures prominently in, and which she recently discussed over the phone from Los Angeles.
Sir! No Sir! plays at the Bloor Cinema until Tuesday.
Q How did you become involved the G.I. anti-war movement?
A When I made my decision to leave France and come back to the United States in 1970, I became involved in the G.I. (anti-war) movement. Things just fell into place. Right away, I met people that were civilians and ex-Green Berets who were involved in the G.I. movement. They asked me to help out. I visited all the coffee houses and a year later I put together the (FTA) show.
(The FTA Show was a popular satiric anti-war revue that featured Fonda and Donald Sutherland, among others. It toured coffee houses and halls that were near military bases, so as to reach those enlisted men who were sympathetic to the show's critical stance. Depending on whom you talked to, and in what company, the letters stood either for "Free the Army" or "F—k the Army.")
So really, my way of being an anti-war activist was working with G.I.'s and returning vets.
Q The movie makes a strong case that the fact of military dissent during Vietnam has been conveniently forgotten.
A Because it's the most incendiary thing that could happen. It's one thing to have a movement of civilians at home opposing the war or internationally. But when the soldiers themselves say `uh-uh,' that's a real problem.
Q Sir! No Sir! also reminds us of the scale of the anti-Vietnam military movement. It was huge, wasn't it?
A It really escalated after Tet (Offensive) in 1968 when the soldiers saw that what they had been told about light at the end of the tunnel and everything just wasn't so. I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of soldiers, and basically they all said the same.
They went over as our brave soldiers do because they thought that they were fighting for democracy and to liberate the people of South Vietnam. And one of the things that really hit home to these young people, which speaks well for them, is the way that the people of South Vietnam were being treated.
It opened up the eyes of a lot of young men. I remember one said to me: `These could be my uncles and nephews that we're doing these things to and that I see these things being done to. And why are we treating them this way? This isn't right.' Thank God their hearts were still able to receive that information.
I want to be clear. This was not the reality for the majority of servicemen and women that were in South Vietnam. It was the reality for those combat troops who were in areas where there were a lot of civilians. That's what is happening in Iraq today and it's the nature of insurgency or guerrilla war. The so-called enemy is mingling with civilians and you don't know who's who. Robert Jay Lifton, the leading psychiatrist for the returning soldiers, wrote a book called Home From the War, and he came up with an interesting phrase. He said it was "an atrocity-producing situation."
I think it's important to hold that in our minds because again, it parallels very much what's happening today. You're putting very young people in an atrocity-producing situation.
Q Are you in any way surprised that your Vietnam anti-war activism is still considered such an issue? And that you're still characterized as being anti-troops?
A I'm a lightning rod. It's like, `Oh, you'd better not protest the war. You'll become like Jane Fonda.' So whenever the mythology needs to be raised up again, I feel the impact very personally.
It's painful because the last thing in the world I was, was anti-troops. But I made mistakes that allowed me to be put in that position. And I write about it in my book (her biography My Life So Far, which came out last year). But I'm also aware, especially in the last year when I've been traveling this country, the extent to which a lot people don't buy into it any more, or have moved from that place. Including soldiers.
I think the book helped some of them understand where I was coming from and forgive me. So I have the two dynamics: that the hatred is being created in some instances; and that the hatred and bitterness some feel is often against themselves. They can't forgive themselves. So there's a lot of sadness too.
Even the very extent that it still exists is an indication that we have never really recovered from Vietnam. We've never really understood it. I mean, to blame me?