During the Iraq War, much has been written about the responsibility of soldiers to relinquish their civilian freedoms in the name of military duty. Books, blogs, and opinion pieces by soldiers critical of the administration have been attacked not for their content, but for the appearance of aiding the enemy. David Zeiger's documentary Sir! No Sir! offers a surprising parallel in the history of resistance to the Vietnam War from within the ranks.
Long before the internet and blogs, printed and mimeographed underground papers circulated in military barracks. Often filled with vulgar humor and lampoons of barking Sergeants and the hardships of military life, these papers were officially banned but universally available. As more and more soldiers became disenchanted with the mission in Vietnam, the underground military press expanded in tandem with the civilian protest movement. G.I.s began to see that the civil rights movement's calls for equality were equally relevant in a military that had disproportionately few black officers. In the ideology of Black Nationalism, other soldiers began to see the Vietnamese people as fighting the same system of white oppression they faced at home.
Protests and Prisons
Soldiers who took part in protests – either in uniform or civilian dress – were subject to detention and court marshal. Despite this risk, large numbers of G.I.s took part in sit-ins, marches, and – especially late in the war – outright refusal to obey orders they considered immoral. Zeiger interviews soldiers who were jailed for sit-ins and protests. A group of intelligence officers speak about their decision to supply inaccurate locations of villages when they realized that the U.S. bombing campaign would not sway a war that was already lost.
Figuring prominently in Sir! No Sir! is Jane Fonda – who became a face of the Vietnam protest movement. The breadth of opposition to the war within the ranks is apparent in footage of her "FTA" tour (officially "Free The Army," but soldiers knew the 'F' to stand for something else). In a new interview, Fonda recalls the vast crowds of soldiers filling off-base auditoriums and amphitheaters despite the fact that they could be disciplined for attending such events. Between rousing jokes and songs, solemn moments reveal the young men and women to be filled with genuine concern for their country and a deep yearning to return to their families.
Fighting Revisionist History
During the 1960s and 70s, reporting on desertions, low morale, and opposition to the war among soldiers was common in the mainstream press. In the decades since, the cultural wound of the war has been patched over with stories that reframe opposition to the war as limited to long-haired drug users. Sir! No Sir! sets the record straight with first-hand accounts, press clippings, and remarkable footage from Vietnam and U.S. bases.
As an example the film cites the ubiquitous story of soldiers being spit upon by protesters upon returning from fighting for their country in Vietnam. The story is so common that conservative and liberal commentators alike cite it when talking about the respect owed to our men and women in uniform. A researcher in Zeiger's film explains why this story is logistically unlikely and has found no evidence of it ever having happened.
The story illustrates how our understanding of Vietnam has been shaped by those who seek to gloss over the errors of the past to present an unblemished view of U.S. history.
Healing and Teaching
Vietnam Veterans at the screening I attended were particularly thankful for the retelling of their struggles within a military machine that had so clearly gone off track. Sir! No Sir! likewise offers much to the post-Vietnam generations who are struggling with conflicting loyalties to duty and country.