At times during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush supporters assailed John Kerry for having been a leading figure in an organization called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Republicans attacked Kerry for participating in a demonstration where he threw away his war medals. That Kerry tried to dodge this charge rather than embrace it is an indication of how much the American electorate has managed (some would say has been manipulated) to misremember and misunderstand the widespread turmoil of the Vietnam years. Just as much of the country recalls public dissent over American's southeast Asia policy during the 1960s and '70s, it also thinks of hippie draft dodgers disrespecting the military. Among much that this selective amnesia fails to recall is the extensive role played by protestors within the armed services themselves and among veterans like Kerry, who turned vehemently against the war. David Zeiger's documentary Sir! No Sir! addresses this troubling forgetfulness directly.
Sir! No Sir! features contemporary interviews with Vietnam soldiers, sailors and marines who turned against the war, either while still in the country or upon returning home. It reminds us that "progress" in the war was measured by a weekly body count scorecard. Our leaders purported that we were winning the war because more Vietnamese than American G.I.s were dying. This obviously flawed analysis led directly to such atrocities as Mai Lai. Sir! No Sir! examines the 300-paper-strong anti-war underground press written by soldiers and distributed clandestinely on bases to their obviously appreciative comrades. To make the point that the 1st Amendment ought to provide any soldier the right to criticize American foreign policy if a general like Vietnam commander William Westmoreland could publicly defend it, Navy nurse Susan Schnall deliberately wore her uniform to an anti-war rally. She was court-martialed for doing so.
The veteran witnesses in Sir! No Sir! appear to come from all walks and classes of American life. Capt. Howard Levy was a doctor who became so opposed to the war that he refused to continue training medics. His rebellion brought him a three-year prison sentence. Louis Font graduated from West Point and then refused to serve in Vietnam. He also received a jail sentence. Randy Rowland reports of serving in a hospital where wounded soldiers in excruciating physical and psychological pain, sometimes with neither arms nor legs, begged him, for mercy's sake, to kill them. A vet named Keith Mather argues that the vast majority of Americans who served in Vietnam after 1967 did so under moral protest and points to the staggering 550,000 soldiers who deserted.
Most of the servicemen who fought in Vietnam, of course, were drafted. They slung M-16s across their backs, for the most part with proper patriotism, but not because they chose to, but rather because they had to. Utterly familiar with the increasingly influential anti-war movement stateside, they were decreasingly willing to sacrifice their lives for a cause they didn't believe in. Sir! No Sir! argues that after 1970 the army was near collapse and that the Nixon-Kissinger determination to "Vietnamese" the ground war -- that is to rely on South Vietnamese troops and emphasize an American air campaign that attempted to carpet bomb North Vietnam into submission -- was the direct result of American draftees beginning to defy the orders of their officers.
Jane Fonda appears several times in Sir! No Sir! to comment on her anti-war activities. She offers no discussion of her trip to Hanoi, for which she has publicly apologized. But she does express her sympathy for the American G.I.s who died in Vietnam or were forever changed by their experiences there and narrates footage of the wildly popular "anti-Bob-Hope" shows she and others brought to the Far East during the era. Fonda was unquestionably foolish at times during these years, but the rightwing's characterization of her as out of the mainstream and treasonous has always been a reductive act of political slander.
Much of the last quarter of Sir! No Sir! is devoted to exploding the urban myth that returning Vietnam G.I.'s were spit on by anti-war protestors. Author Jerry Lembcke, who addressed the issue in his book Spitting Image, convincingly argues that such an experience, if it happened at all, was exceedingly rare. I know from my own experience that those of us in the anti-war movement who managed as I did (through concerted effort) to avoid the Vietnam draft, felt only sympathy for those who wore the uniform. And among my acquaintances who ended up in Vietnam, none bore ill will or felt betrayed by civilian anti-war protest. We were two sides of the same coin, and to this day members of the Vietnam generation, draftee or draft resister, have more in common than they have differences. Together they forced a government to end a terribly misguided war. President Bush says we'll still be in Iraq when he leaves office in 2009. Would that be true were there still a military draft?