To my surprise, it was soldiers, not hippies, who spearheaded protest of the Vietnam War. And before it was over, America would witness her own veterans tearing off their medals and throwing them on the capitol steps.
Long before the troops began to refuse night patrols and protest rallies at home revealed the division in our ranks, a few soldiers unintentionally planted the roots of a movement by following their conscience and saying Sir! No Sir!
Director David Zeiger’s documentary reveals how the soldiers who initially protested acted alone, fully aware that court-martial and prison awaited them.
Like their fathers and grandfathers, they went to war "gung ho," assured they were doing the right thing. But it soon became clear that, along with the American people, the soldiers were being lied to.
Dr. Howard Levy was sent to Vietnam to help "win hearts and minds" by providing free dermatology to villagers, curing common skin problems. But he became aware that our bombers were attacking villagers with a new napalm that was specially formulated to stick better to human skin.
Levy’s tale is one of many in which horrific irony and bitter disappointment in their leadership play a role in a man or woman’s transformation from soldier to protestor. In the words of Special Forces veteran, Donald Duncan, "It was personal. There was no [peace] movement."
Army medic Randy Rowland rebelled only after experiencing gravely wounded American soldiers begging for death on a daily basis, none of whom thought that their sacrifice was justifiable.
Director Zeiger does a fine job tracing the military roots of the peace movement, starting with these early incidents and taking us through the organized growth of protest within the ranks.
By the time Navy nurse, Susan Schnall made headlines by getting arrested for protesting in uniform, an "Underground G.I. Press" was already filtering newspapers through our bases. Men were organizing in coffeehouses, and even within the walls of the Presidio, where detained soldiers were outraged by the killing of 19-year-old Michael Bunch, shot dead while trying to escapea work detail.
In Sir! No Sir!, Zeiger goes on to provide a fascinating timeline of events (in combat and at home), which paint a fairly thorough picture of how we lost the war in Vietnam, why there were over 550,000 incidents of desertion, why some soldiers killed their own officers, and others refused to fight.
We also see how talk of peace was portrayed as unpatriotic, and how Nixon responded to his protesting troops by shifting to a vicious air war that attempted to bomb Vietnam "Back to the Stone Age."
Critics of this film could point out that not all veterans are represented by Sir! No Sir!. Many who proudly stood by their oath to "support and defend" the orders of the president will never forgive those who dodged the draft or mutinied in the field. Nor will they ever forgive public figures like Jane Fonda, whose attempt to side with "the people" was interpreted as giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
But Zeiger’s film patriotically stands behind the equally brave soldiers on both sides of this divide, containing elements with disturbing relevance to the Iraq War, the death toll of which currently stands at 2,437 military and 35-40,000 civilians killed.
Sir, No Sir! shatters myths about the origins of war protest, and the way memory of the Vietnam war has been reconstructed. It also reveals how protest begins on the front lines, with men whose moral outrage is stronger than their willingness to march in step.