Like many filmmakers, David Zeiger was inspired by the Iraq War. Between the questionable battlefield buildup and the current drawn-out conflict, Zeiger was driven to show how American soldiers cope when they're sent to fight in a war that much of the public--and some of the soldiers themselves--consider unjust. The result is his documentary "Sir! No Sir!"
"The door was opening for this, and the need was there for this story to be told," he said. "I knew I had to make the film."
But "Sir! No Sir!," which opens in Chicago Friday, doesn't even mention Iraq. The film documents the unprecedented rise of the grassroots anti-war movement within the military during Vietnam--one that spawned protests, dozens of underground newspapers and a string of anti-war coffeehouses at army bases around the country. Since today's soldiers in Iraq face repeated tours of duty fighting in a war that's losing public support, the film is nothing if not relevant.
The film itself is screening at theaters around the country and has garnered several under-the-radar awards, including best documentary from the Hamptons International Film Festival, best film on war and peace from the Vermont International Film Festival and the audience award for best documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival, among others.
"I thought the film was very powerful," said Michael Blake, a 23-year-old member of the group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). "[It] shows me that we, as a movement, really need to tap into the active army and the active community right now. We need to let soldiers know they don't have to agree with and participate in an illegal war for immoral purposes."
Blake's organization, which helps vets speak out against the war and connects them to a "community of like-minded individuals," is distributing 500 DVDs of the film, free of charge, to current and former service members who request it. He's hoping it helps change soldiers' minds and inspires them to oppose the war, much like those profiled in "Sir! No Sir!" did. IVAW has steadily grown to 250-plus members since being founded in 2003. But, as Blake's own experience in the Fourth Infantry Division in Iraq has taught him, the Army has learned important lessons from Vietnam that make it more difficult and rare for today's volunteer soldiers to speak out.
"After Vietnam, the Army realized the problem with shuffling soldiers in and out on individual tours is that they develop no esprit de corps," Blake said. "Now that we have a completely volunteer army, everyone goes in together and everybody comes back together, no matter what the mission is. Even though I disagreed with the war, when I went on my mid-tour relief, I felt like I needed to be back there. My own unit is back there right now, and sometimes I feel like I should be there."
In "Sir! No Sir!," many of the young draftees protesting Vietnam were less dissuaded by punishment or dishonorable discharges faced for speaking out. But many of today's soldiers can't afford to lose what are, realistically, their jobs, according to Charley Richardson, a co-founder of Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), a coalition of roughly 3,000 military families that advocates bringing the troops home immediately.
"Although it's called an all-volunteer army," said Richardson, who had a son in the Marines who served in Iraq, "we do have what one may call an opportunity or economic draft. A lot of people join the military to get health-care coverage, to get access to education benefits and to sort of move forward with their lives in a way that's not available to them through other means. They can't easily abandon that."
While they may not directly protest or refuse orders as some GIs did in Vietnam, soldiers today have other means to express their discontent with the mission and the contentious stop-loss orders that have sent soldiers back to Iraq multiple times. Yesterday's underground newspapers have largely been replaced by blogs and podcasts, such as Fight to Survive (ftssoldier.blogspot.com). But in keeping with the volunteer nature of the force, most soldiers these days are making a more silent protest, according to Richardson.
"I think where you see opposition is in the [low] re-enlistment rates," he said. "It's not overt and political, but it's opposition none the less."