I was doing it right," one ex-GI says of his stint in Vietnam, "but I wasn't doing right." Trained to follow the orders of their superiors and counter communist aggression in Southeast Asia, the interview subjects in Sir! No Sir! describe their growing misgivings about the war and the many different ways they chose to express them
David Zeiger's informative and swiftly paced documentary reveals the under-publicized history of dissent among the U.S. military's rank and file during the Vietnam war. In so doing, his film highlights the efforts of soldiers like the "Nine for Peace," nine servicemen turned protesters who chained themselves to clergymen before being arrested by military police in 1968, and Howard Levy, an army doctor who was sentenced to three years in prison for refusing to give medical training to Green Berets.
Sir! No Sir! also charts the proliferation of unrest-fomenting GI coffeehouses and underground zines with monikers like WORMS (We Openly Resist Military Stupidity). There's even a brief account of Jane Fonda's infamous travelling theatre group, whose anarchic spirit was meant to counter the more gung-ho nature of the USO. Interviewed for the film, Fonda expresses her admiration for the soldiers who resisted all that military stupidity.
As much as it lauds people who didn't kowtow to the ruling order, Sir! No Sir! could have used a little more discipline itself. Hopping rather haphazardly from one example to another, Zeiger fails to convince that this wide array of events and actions ever constituted a coherent movement. The film's hectic stream of sound bites and clips also threatens to reduce the impact of the assembled facts and the still-raw emotions expressed by the interview subjects.
Yet Zeiger does draw attention to many important elements that have been less prominent in the history of this war, such as how the civil-rights struggle at home amplified racial tensions abroad.
The film also floats the compelling notion that president Richard Nixon's decision to scale down the ground war in favour of raining death from the skies was greatly influenced by officers' worries that they were about to get fragged by their own men.
The possibility that stories about returning GIs being spat on by hippie girls were media myth is equally fascinating but, like many of the points here, dealt with too hastily.
However, Zeiger is wise not to spend time drawing specific parallels between the conflict in Vietnam and America's current military imbroglio. He leaves it up to the audience to make those connections and perhaps wonder whether similar stories of resistance are currently unfolding.