In March 1964 Robert S. McNamara opened a speech about South Vietnam with the statement that "the independence of a nation and the freedom of its people are being threatened by Communist aggression and terrorism." Many words later, Mr. McNamara, the secretary of defense, concluded, in rosy terms that sound eerily similar to contemporary dispatches, that "when the day comes that we can safely withdraw, we expect to leave an independent and stable South Vietnam, rich with resources and bright with prospects for contributing to the peace and prosperity of Southeast Asia and of the world."
Much happened in the bloody decade that followed, but one of the most memorable chapters of the Vietnam War has also long been one of the least revisited: the antiwar movement inside the military. Called the G.I. Movement, this resistance manifested itself in countless ways: in organized protests, in desertions and in the coffeehouses that sprang up across the country near military bases. In the early 1970's the documentary filmmaker David Zeiger worked in one such coffeehouse, the Oleo Strut in Killeen, Tex., not far from Fort Hood. Named for a helicopter shock absorber, the Oleo Strut was where off-duty soldiers went to decompress and to check out the latest issue of one of the many underground military publications, like The Fatigue Press, that gave powerful voice to their dissent.
In his smart, timely documentary about the G.I. Movement, "Sir! No Sir!," Mr. Zeiger takes a look at how the movement changed and occasionally even rocked the military from the ground troops on up. On one level the film serves as a corrective to the rah-rah rhetoric about Vietnam in such schlock entertainments as the 1980's "Rambo" franchise, in which Sylvester Stallone's veteran turned mercenary ritualistically wipes away the spit lobbed at him by a phantom antiwar protester. The image of the spat-upon Vietnam veteran, explains Jerry Lembcke, himself a Vietnam veteran and one of the persuasive talking heads who appears in the new film, helped maintain the important fiction that opposition to the war came strictly from outside the military.
During the 1960's and 70's American newspapers routinely reported a significantly different story than the one later cooked up by Hollywood and other revisionists. This film shows that as antiwar sentiment gathered strength in American streets, a parallel movement seized the armed forces. By September 1971 dissent among the ranks had become a front-page subject in this newspaper, with a headline that read "Army Is Shaken by Crisis in Morale and Discipline." Soldiers were fed up and up in arms, and not always against the Vietcong. Desertions were on the rise, as were fraggings, named for the fragmentation grenades lobbed at superiors by their own men. By 1974 the Defense Department would record more than half a million incidents of desertion since the mid-60's.
Mr. Zeiger fits so much into his 84-minute film that it's hard not to wish he had spent more time on what happens when American soldiers break ranks with their leaders. John Kerry's bid for president proved that long after fighting in Vietnam came to an end, a war of words continues to rage. It's a war of words that finds Jane Fonda — who performed for tens of thousands of troops in an antiwar revue, "Free the Army," and makes a passionate appearance in the film — still labeled Hanoi Jane. "Remembered as a war that was lost because of betrayal at home," Mr. Lembcke has written, "Vietnam becomes a modern-day Alamo that must be avenged, a pretext for more war and generations of more veterans." In "Sir! No Sir!," Mr. Zeiger remembers that war and the veterans whose struggles against it are too often forgotten.