I have always been the black sheep of the family. While my sisters were going one direction, I was most assuredly going another. I was a flower child. Janis Joplin was my idol until her death, yet the thought of mixing drugs and alcohol seemed counter-productive to me. Though I did rather appreciate the concept of running around with a bottle of Southern Comfort in one hand at all times, fear of parental reprisal kept me from emulating her to that degree. I tried to go to Woodstock, but never made it. I was all about peace, love and rock and roll. I was drawn to and ran with the kids that were a couple of years older, most of them very popular and all quite intelligent. They were idealists, spoke on a world-oriented plane that was foreign to most of the rest of the town, and had the potential to be movers and shakers when they became adults.
1969 was a big year for my older friends and for me watching them as they prepared to enter the world. I remember watching the lotteries with them, checking birthdates, seeing who was going to have to “go” upon graduation. I participated in one student protest in 1969. It started out as a protest against school policies as a national accrediting organization was doing a post-restructuring evaluation. It ended up as a statement against the Viet Nam “conflict” when we received the news that one of our former classmates had died unnecessarily in friendly fire. That year, one-third of the seniors – all my friends - walked out of school en masse. About that many juniors joined them. I was one of a handful of sophomores who followed suit. At the time, in history class, we were all involved in a group strategy game similar to the game of Risk, but with groups who represented various key nations in the world, developing world policy. I was a part of the United States team. We had just impeached our do-nothing “president”, and by some stretch of dubious luck, I was elected to run the country. Imagine that, if you will…The President of the United States participating in a protest and walkout over the Viet Nam conflict. I was surreptitiously labelled for the remainder of my school years for this one act, but you know – it goes back to that old “black sheep” thing. It’s sort of like being the only “goth” student in a school of preppies. In a lot of ways, I was proud of that distinction. My parents were appalled.
After that walkout, I wrote constantly about the things that troubled me about our community, our nation and our world. Once they were given over to the school paper, and I’d sent some off to The Omaha World-Herald, they were gone. I didn’t keep copies. I regret that, now. As I think back on what I wrote during that time, they are now, today, still timely with a few alterations for time, place and people.
I went to junior college not realizing how attuned I already was to that time of conflict. It was a small school. If the school population itself was over 1,000, I would have been surprised. I walked into the student union that first day, and the world I had written about so many times in high school became vivid and real. I was drawn to the table where the Vets were playing cards. They accepted me, thinking I was just the tiniest bit off-centre wanting to hang with a bunch of guys telling war stories and talking about their wounds, but I couldn’t help it. I was struck by the stories, the frustration, the anti-war sentiment these guys exhibited as they spoke of their days in Viet Nam. There were 15 of them, as I recall, all speaking with one voice against the war. I didn’t know at the time that there was an entire movement afoot – the GI Movement. I may have been “attuned”, but I was still so very unaware.
On Saturday morning (22 April 2006), I had the good fortune to see a review of the documentary Sir, No Sir! on BBC America's Talking Movies. The story brought back memories of that time 30 years ago, and brought to the forefront for me the realisation that there is now and has been since the beginning of the conflict in Iraq the same sort of movement underway, and supported by many of those veterans that were a part of the original GI Movement. I began searching for more information about the movement, and found it primarily on the Mother Jones web site. Right now, where I live, I would have to drive to another state in order to see this film yet this summer. However, there is an independent film center here in Omaha that may be willing to show it. It’s hard to say, considering the fact Omaha has a SAC headquarters. I’ll write more about the GI Movement, but I think the following is enough food for thought for the time being. I applaud those involved in this sort of movement. There is such a thing as protecting your country, and yet still refusing to participate in a conflict whose primary focuses are senseless greed and special interests.
Here’s a portion of an interview with David Zeiger, director of the documentary. You'll find it at Mother Jones, article originally written 1 September 2005 by Jonathan Stein.
The Oleo Strut was a coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, from 1968 to 1972. Like its namesake, a shock absorber in helicopter landing gear, the Oleo Strut’s purpose was to help GIs land softly. Upon returning from Vietnam to Fort Hood, shell-shocked soldiers found solace amongst the Strut’s regulars, mostly fellow soldiers and a few civilian sympathizers. But it didn’t take long before shell shock turned into anger, and that anger into action. The GIs turned the Oleo Strut into one of Texas’s anti-war headquarters, publishing an underground anti-war newspaper, organizing boycotts, setting up a legal office, and leading peace marches.
David Zeiger was one of the civilians who helped run the Oleo Strut. He went on to a career in political activism and today, at 55, he is a filmmaker and the director of Sir! No Sir!, a new documentary on the all-but-forgotten antiwar activities of GIs from Fort Hood to Saigon. The GI Movement, as it was then known, was composed of both vets recently returned from Vietnam and active-duty soldiers. They fought for peace in ways big and small, from organizing leading anti-war organizations to wearing peace signs instead of dog tags. By the early ‘70s, opposition to the Vietnam War within the military and amongst veterans had grown so widespread that no one could credibly claim that opposing the war meant opposing the troops. Veterans wanted an end to the war; their brothers in Vietnam agreed.
Zeiger put off making this movie for years, convinced the public didn’t want to hear another story about the ‘60s. What finally spurred the project was the Iraq War and the role some Vietnam vets are playing in keeping America’s young men and women from seeing the same horrors they saw. When GIs from the current war started coming home and wondering what they’d been fighting for, Zeiger’s days at the Oleo Strut took on a new relevance. His film is a remarkable interweaving of vets’ stories about their intensifying resistance to the war, starting with the lone objectors of the late ‘60s and culminating with open disobedience throughout the ranks in the ‘70s. One vet even recalls an episode from 1972 in which Military Police joined enlisted men in burning an effigy of their commanding officer. The images that accompany such stories are just as powerful. As a young doctor is escorted into a military court for refusing to train GIs, hundreds of enlisted men lean out of nearby windows extending peace signs in support. It’s an image that the Army didn’t want the American people to see then, and probably wouldn’t want the American people to see today.
Sir! No Sir! won the Documentary Audience Award at the L.A. Film Festival and is slated for broad release before the end of the year. David Zeiger spoke with MotherJones.com from the Los Angeles office of his production company, Displaced Films.