Last night I went to see a documentary titled "Sir No Sir!" It's a new film that's making the rounds in art houses and alternative cinemas across the country, telling the story of how resistance from active-duty soldiers in the Vietnam War had a profound impact on changing US policy and eventually bringing the conflict to an end. It's a pretty amazing collection of footage, featuring both original sources from the 60's and 70's along with interviews from more recent years of some of those same men and women who we see protesting and sometimes going to the brig for their active resistance to their superior officers.
Some interesting points that stick with me that I hadn't really grasped until watching the film: Just how wide-spread insubordination apparently became in the peak years of the Vietnam War, when hundreds or thousands of soldiers lost confidence in their leaders and seriously questioned the morality and effectiveness of what they were being ordered to do. In the Cambodia invasions that Nixon ordered, there were entire units of soldiers who basically refused to follow orders, flat out. There were some major uprisings of imprisoned troops, over half a million cases of "desertion" reported by the Armed Forces throughout the war and a widespread "underground newspaper" phenomenon where soldiers developed their own alternative press to get their insights and experiences to people both inside and outside of the military. The lobby of the theater had a fascinating display of photo-copies of some of the front pages of these short-lived, highly subversive and hard-hitting periodicals (some of which got their writers shipped to the front lines or in other kinds of trouble.)
The film also had a little sidebar on the "urban legend" (my word, not theirs) of Vietnam soldiers getting spit on and called "baby killers" when they returned to the States. A researcher looked into how this story apparently planted itself in the popular consciousness years after the war had ended, reinforced by movies like "Rambo" and "Hamburger Hill" who had an agenda of "re-legitimizing" US policy in Vietnam during the 80's and in subsequent years. No reports from the times when soldiers were coming back from their tours of duty could be found to verify the archetypal story of a girl wearing love beads spitting on a vet as he walked across the tarmac at the San Francisco airport. The larger point behind all this is that some serious historic revisionism has been employed by the "hawks" to undo the damage that they felt was done to their ability to convince the American public that war is a necessary and preferable option when they want to employ that tool to advance their policy objectives. It's clear to me that these efforts have overall been successful in that they were able to persuade most of the American public to support the invasion of Iraq when the time came.
Speaking of Iraq, after the showing, we got to listen to a Q & A session featuring a Vietnam vet (Marines) who edited one of those underground papers and an Iraq vet (National Guard) who served a year as a driver between Baghdad and Falluja. It was fascinating to hear their reports, clarifying the similarities and differences between the two wars. The main development that seems to have taken place in how war is managed these days is that soldiers in Iraq are kept much more separated from the civilian population, so they don't get the same full picture of the effects of the occupation that Vietnam era soldiers saw. There's also a more effective control of the media and the range of tolerable dissent is much narrower than it was in Vietnam. I certainly can see the problems of widespread insurrection among the troops - the film talked about "fragging," the practice of subordinate soldiers intentionally killing or wounding their commanders. That's not a good thing under any circumstances! But one has to wonder what would push troops to commit such acts.
Even with clear improvements by the military command structure in managing the potential negative effects of unfiltered information, the Iraq vet reported that there is a wide range of thoughts and opinions among those serving in Iraq, which mainly cuts along generational lines. Older personnel tend to be more earnest in their support for Bush's policies, while younger troops tend to feel exploited and cynical, wanting to just complete their duties, get home safely and get on with their lives. He described himself as coming from a very patriotic family, about as conservative a Republican guy as you could ever expect to meet in this area (and that's very conservative folks!) who voted for Bush in 2000, but whose opinions on American foreign policy and the legitimacy of our involvement in Iraq changed drastically once he got over there and saw what was happening. I respected his presentation quite a bit - he was low-key and completely resisted any opportunities to descend into mockery, ranting or other low-blows directed against the people responsible for getting our nation into the invasion of Iraq. He was very unaffected in his delivery, just a guy speaking his conscience who was fairly "pestered" into speaking last night by one of his friends who helped to organize the showing of this film. Overall, I found the comments of the two vets quite inspiring - it helps to reinvigorate my own thinking about what I can do to end the war and hopefully prevent us from getting into similar or worse fiascoes in the future.
I'm not sure when or if the movie will get broad distribution. It's only showing in limited viewings as you can see on the website. Maybe the DVD will be released soon? But the website does a good job of telling some of the story as well. I encourage you to spend a bit of time there if what I've said here captures your attention.