Do we need yet another Vietnam War documentary? Probably not, unless it covers new ground or rediscovers long-lost personal or partial histories that, when added to the overarching "official" narratives found in college textbooks, give us, as viewers, new insights, new understandings on the war and its consequences. Sir! No Sir focuses on the little known history of anti-war pressures that formed within military units and outside, as returning GIs formed anti-war groups on or around military bases or joined the larger peace movement. Using a combination of archival footage, some of it unseen for decades, and selected interviews with former military officers and soldiers, writer/director David Zeiger hopes to raise awareness of the nature of the movement, its breadth, and its impact on the war itself.
One part of the "official" history remains unchallenged, that the anti-war movement expressed popular discontent with the political and military policies of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but more importantly, applied selective, constant pressure on both administrations to end the Vietnam War. How much that pressure expedited the end of the war is open to debate, but Nixon running for re-election in 1972 on a "secret plan" to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam certainly isn't. Nixon's plan involved the phased withdrawal of U.S. ground troops, many of them near mutiny, replacing them with a South Vietnamese Army backed by U.S. air power. That policy slowed the disintegration of South Vietnam for several years, and, while it saved American lives, it didn't spare the Vietnamese (North and South) nor the Cambodians or the Laotians (Nixon invaded both countries).
Nixon's policy choices in the early 1970s grew out of the concern that American troops had lost the will, the morale to fight against the North Vietnamese and their supporters in the South. That concern, in turn, grew out of the anti-war movement within the U.S. military, or so Sir! No Sir! argues, beginning early in the war, with the resignations of individual officers, like Donald Duncan, a decorated member of the Green Berets, who resigned in 1966 after more than a year in Vietnam. Duncan wrote a seminal article in Ramparts Magazine that voiced the concerns of officers and soldiers serving in Vietnam (e.g., the lack of clarity or endpoint to the mission, the collateral damage that resulted in high civilian death tolls, and, of course, the high death and injury rates of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam). Another officer, Howard Levy, a dermatologist drafted to train medics in Vietnam, refused to carry out the training. He was court-martialed and served three years in prison.
Director/writer David Zeiger argues that the 1968 Tet Offensive (a massive coordinated attack by the North Vietnamese on U.S. forces that caused panic in Washington and major disillusionment within the military) was also a turning point in the burgeoning GI anti-war movement. Director David Zeiger focuses on the so-called "Presidio Twenty-Seven," AWOL (away without leave) U.S. soldiers who openly joined peaceful, anti-war demonstrations. They were arrested and thrown into the Presidio stockade in San Francisco where, due to a combination of poor facilities and mistreatment, they continued their opposition to the war. As a result, several of them tried for mutiny (far more serious than the AWOL charges that sent them to the brigade).
As the war went on, groups formed across the country, including the well-known Vietnam Veterans Against the War that staged demonstrations in front of the White House (the famous image of soldiers chucking their medals over a makeshift wall came at the end of one mostly peaceful demonstration which also led to several members of the group testifying before Congress). The GI groups began participating in public rallies, on their own and with other groups, including the general anti-war movement. The GI movement culminated in the controversial "Winter Soldier Investigation," a three-day conference where soldiers described their participation in the mistreatment of the Vietnamese, up to and including war crimes (controversial due to the incendiary charges aired at the hearings, which many Americans failed to believe, and questions about the veracity of some of the ex-soldiers who testified or the lack of corroborating evidence to support their claims).
Zeiger wanted to also address what he considers the myth of anti-war activists spitting in disgust and calling out “baby killer” at returning U.S. servicemen. Zeiger's research finds that the story hardened into accepted fact without substantiation. None of the contemporaneous news sources describe any such incident, let alone incidents. If the incident happened, it's lost in time, but the usual version of the story involves anti-American hippies, San Francisco International Airport, the returning servicemen, the spitting and the name calling. Zeiger suggests that even if an incident did happen, it was local and infrequent (if it was repeated at all). As Sir! No Sir! takes pains to point out, the peace movement was focused on ending the war and bringing the troops home (the disgust and revulsion was saved for the military leaders and the politicians who conducted the war).
Whether Sir! No Sir! gets much play in the redder parts of the United States is highly unlikely. Vietnam, like the Civil War that preceded it by a century, split the country into two groups, two memories, two narratives about the Vietnam War (the second narrative is not surprisingly missing from Sir! No Sir!). These two narratives, about how and why we entered the Vietnam War, why we fought, and more importantly, why we lost, have come back to haunt us in Iraq. The lack of unity, the desire to fight and win a “lost” war has led the current political administration into another war, another occupation. Public opinion has turned against the occupation of Iraq, but the demonstrations have been sporadic, and nothing approaching a GI movement has been formed (not yet at least). If anything, Sir! No Sir! reminds us of the obligation politicians and citizens alike owe to servicemen and servicewoman, to fight only when we must, because if we don't, they will be facing the consequences, mental, physical, and emotional, for years to come.