I just got back from watching David Zieger's brilliant new film, "Sir, No Sir," about the resistance movement WITHIN the US military during Viet Nam, or more correctly, the war in Southeast Asia. I want to share some thoughts. This is from an activist who is a Viet Nam era veteran (USMC, 1969-73, stayed in States all four years, honorable discharge, rank of Sergeant), and even though I work as an academic today, I have never studied the war academically, and definitely do not see myself as an "expert."
Two quick thoughts and then some details: First, Zieger has done an excellent job on this movie--he brings to life the largest working class movement in the country's history since the late 1940s: the anti-war movement in the military. Second, folks, we've GOT to do a better job in getting people into the theaters to see this film. We who call ourselves leftists, progressives, liberals, what ever, need to get our asses into the theaters for this one and take our friends. I'm quite serious about this.
Let me recount: during the Viet Nam war, as GIs and Marines began to understand what they had gotten into (whether volunteer or draftee)--many after coming back from Viet Nam--they started fighting the US military itself, and particularly officers and staff NCOs (Non-commissioned officers--these are senior enlisted folks who have re-enlisted at least once in the military and usually see it as a career: often, along with "gung ho" officers, referred to with great disdain as "lifers").
This resistance movement--in my opinion--came very close to causing the US military to implode. It affected the military not only in Viet Nam, but around the world, including the US.
"Sir, No Sir" tells the story of this resistance movement, showing its growth. Zieger interviews a number of vets (and in one case, a family) to tell the story of this resistance movement, and shows how it grew over time. Eventually, entire military units in Viet Nam refused to fight in combat--which, under military law, is a death penalty offense; over 500,000 service men and women deserted;there were over 1,400 DOCUMENTED cases of "fraggings" (where soldiers would try to use fragmentation grenades to kill officers and/or staff NCOs; and some military units brought to help control the riots expected around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 were not used because their reliability as repressive forces could not be guaranteed.
Towards the end of the war, and especially as Nixon and Kissinger began shifting to greater and greater reliance upon air power, the resistance movement spread into the Air Force and Navy. (Not mentioned in the film, but one large aircraft carrier--I believe it was the Forrestal, but I'm not certain--had one of its main drive shafts damaged so badly by sabotage that it was in dry dock for a year and a half before it could be used for combat operations!)
In this film, David Zieger interviews a number of men and women--overwhelmingly men, as that what our military was like during those times--and has them talk about what they saw and did. This is not theory--these folks took some serious risks, and a number ending up serving years in prison for their efforts, such as publishing anti-military newspapers while still on active duty (over 300 were created). Some of these folks acted on their own, and some recognized they were part of something larger, and acted accordingly and/or joined organizations, or created their own, like Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), which still exists today. (www.vvaw.org )
Importantly, Zieger includes Jane Fonda in the film, and recognizes the importance of her traveling anti-war show, "FTA." (A take off on the Army's recruiting slogan, "Fun, Travel and Adventure," it was translated in polite company as "Free the Army" and among the troops as "Fuck the Army.") Fonda, along with folks like Donald Sutherland and Holly Near--and many others whose names, unfortunately, I don't know--traveled around the Western Pacific, giving shows in Japan, Okinawa, and the Philippines to the vets, and SUPPORTED THEIR RESISTANCE! Jane, who's been vilified so badly by the right over the years, gets her say, and I'm glad Zieger included her. One mention is of a show or probably a series of shows--it wasn't clear to me--that played to over 60,000 active duty US troops!
But why do I think this film is so important? A number of reasons. Most importantly, it tells part of the war that has been all-but expunged from history. How many people know that by 1971-72, the US military came within a hair of imploding internally? Another reason is that it validates the general anti-war movement: I've seen many debates over the years of the impact of the 1960s protest movement on the war, and while we can--and I'm sure will--debate the direct effect, what I KNOW is that the anti-war movement in the streets had a powerful positive affect on the troops in the military and encouraged us to act. And then, when vets came back, and VVAW held its Winter Soldier investigations in Detroit in 1971 that revealed the war crimes that the US military was committing in Viet Nam--the film of the hearings is now on DVD and is available from VVAW--and then their action in Washington, DC called Dewey Canyon III where vets threw their medals back at Congress in disgust, the vets reinvigorated the anti-war movement. This was the first war when US combat troops came back and repudiated what they had done, and the political leadership that had sent them.
But the real importance of this is for today. It is to show US military personnel on active duty now that they can resist, they can organize, they can work to end the war in Iraq. It can show high school students why they shouldn't go into the military. It can show college students, whose chances of being faced with decisions regarding a draft increase as long as W wants to keep troops in Iraq, that they can learn from the past. (If you think it's not saying anything today, go to the movie web site (www.sirnosir.com ), click on the Rukus Society's Flash "Punk Ass Crusade," on the right hand-side of the screen, and then tell me again!)
In other words, while strongly rooted in the past, this movie is intended for the present and the future. It's about hope. Hope that the troops will come to understand what they're part of, and get them to stop participating in the killing machine. (When you go to the movie's web page, you can click on "Free DVD for Active Duty and Deployed Soldiers," and find that the Iraq Veterans Against the War" will send 500 free copies to people on active duty.)
We've got to make this movie an organizing tool and get people in to see it. And then we've got to ask them, ok, now what are YOU going to do to help end this war?
Now, while being overwhelmingly positive about "Sir, No Sir!", there are some things to say.
First, as good as this film is--and I think it really is quite good--it is only a beginning report on the GI movement. There was a LOT going on not mentioned, or just barely mentioned in the film. The resistance movement was not just in Viet Nam, nor was it just by vets back from Viet Nam. It took place in the States and in Europe, and by men and women who hadn't gone to Viet Nam but who were on active duty and began to understand what they were a part of.
Second, the resistance was not just against the War--in fact, my experience was that much of the resistance, at least among folks at my base, was against the hierarchy and authoritarianism of the military. I think a better way to understand the movement it was that for some folks, the war (and later, the Empire, although it wasn't often called that) was the problem. For some, the authoritarianism was the problem. And for some, it was both.
Third, despite interviewing a number of African-Americans, the movie really doesn't address the incredible racism within the military. By 1971, the Marine Corps--the most disciplined of all the military branches--had a race riot in every major Marine facility in the WORLD except one! Blacks and whites were being disarmed in some places in Viet Nam when they came out of the bush, because there were a number of places where whites and blacks had fire fights against each other. Blacks were being imprisoned at rates far beyond whites. Etc., etc. This story remains to be told.
Also, while "Sir, No Sir!" focuses on the politics of the movement, other than the FTA show, a little bit on the coffee houses, and some on the GI newspapers, it does not give enough attention to the culture that emerged among the junior troops (we called ourselves "snuffies" in the Marine Corps, basically, first term enlisted types). Most especially, there was almost nothing about the music and the drugs. Where would the movement have been without the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of this Place," and many others? Hendrix, of course, was big, as was Janice Joplin, the Doors and so many others, including Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. (Ochs' "I Ain't a Marchin' Anymore" would have been perfect for this movie!)
It also ignores the drugs. They were all over. They were used both to resist the military--Marines could get YEARS in prison for a few pot seeds if found, and a undesirable discharge--and they were used to build solidarity. I'm not just talking pot here--I had a friend who was the Quality Assurance person in our (air wing) squadron who just couldn't work right if he wasn't tripping on acid. In Viet Nam, people smoked pot and opium, and a considerable number tried heroin. (Which was flown in to Viet Nam on the CIA's airline, Air America, after they flew it from the highlands to Bangkok for processing and then on to Saigon for distribution. See Alfred W. McCoy's THE POLITICS OF HEROIN IN SOUTH EAST ASIA for details.) This is in addition to alcohol.
[While not having read a lot on the war, the two best books on the anti-war movement in the US military that I have read are Richard Moser's THE NEW WINTER SOLDIERS: GI AND VETERAN DISSENT DURING THE VIETNAM ERA (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996)--which I reviewed in the VVAW Newspaper, "The Veteran," back in 1996 at http://www.vvaw.org/veteran/article/?id=298 --and Richard Stacewicz' WINTER SOLDIERS: AN ORAL HISTORY OF THE VIETNAM VETERANS AGAINST THE WAR (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997). The "classic" book on the subject is David Cortwright's SOLDIERS IN REVOLT: THE AMERICAN MILITARY TODAY (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1975 but which I understand has been republished more recently.)
In short, an excellent film that deserves wide spread publicity and circulation. We've got to get the word out: if you find these comments useful, then forward them on to at least 10 friends, and ask them to do the same thing. Tell people to go to the web site, find out when the film is appearing in their area, and then have them go see it! We need to get people to see it, and talk about it, and spread the word: this is too important not to do so.
It challenges the myths of the idiots on the right in ways few movies do--it challenges their interpretations of Viet Nam, of the role of the US in the world, and it ultimately challenges our military war on Iraq--and all the other crap that Bush has planned.