On Saturday I attended a special screening (sponsored by KPFK), of Sir! No Sir in Pasadena. This film, a documentary about the widespread but underreported GI anti-war movement during the time of Vietnam, is both educational and entertaining and wipes away the cobwebs of time in transporting viewers back to an era whose Zeitgeist was largely formed by protests and organized rebellions against the government and the "establishment," whose policies led to repression at home as well as death and destruction overseas.
Writer/Director/Producer David Zeiger has created not only a historically significant document with this film, but has contributed a lodestar for present anti-war activists and Iraq war veterans who have either thought about or are currently engaged in protesting the brutalities and crimes going on in the Middle East. Indeed, a representative from IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War) joined Zeiger in a post-screening questions and answer session and informed the audience that there is a surprisingly large number of men and women who have served in Iraq and now want to speak out about the injustices they have witnessed first hand (www.ivaw.net).
As for the film, it makes no direct reference to the present war that the U.S. government has perpetrated against the Iraqi nation and its people, but the parallels between Vietnam and the Iraq war are clear, certainly in the accounts of the My Lai massacre and 1971's Winter Soldier investigation. In these contexts one thinks of the recent horrors that occured in Haditha.
Sir! No Sir is beautifully edited and skillfully incorporates powerful music from the time to contribute to a seamless, flowing narrative. Stylistically, it feels like it could have been made in 1975 rather than in 2004 -- and I mean this in the most positive way.
At the outset, Former Green Beret Donald Duncan, who was one of the first soldiers to speak out about Vietnam, as well as Dr. Howard Levy, who was courtmartialed and spent three years in prison after refusing to serve in Vietnam, are both interviewed and provide insights into the roots of the GI movement. Susan Schnall, a one time Navy nurse who helped organize and participate in mass demonstrations against the war, Keith Mather who was part of "The Nine For Peace" and Randy Rowland, part of the "Presidio 27" all provide emotional recollections of their actions and states of mind during their defining moments in history. Zeiger mixes these interviews with newspaper clippings, caricatures of officers from the then notorious G.I. Underground press, and newsreel footage to create a collage of images, sounds, and feelings. He manages to convey the sense of desperation and purpose that propelled these courageous men and women to take up a fight that had really never been taken up on the level they were attempting.
The role of Afro-American soldiers and their organizations such as the Black Brothers Union were examined in the film as well. It becomes clear in viewing the film that the organized protests, the dialogue being shared at the G.I coffee houses and the participation of antiwar celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Dick Gregory and Donald Sutherland all played a role in the unfolding of events that led to the eventual withdrawal from Vietnam.
While the general public seems to have some conception of the public protests against the war in Vietnam perhaps most don't realize what a significant role the soldiers themselves played in bringing an end to the devastation. It is of interest that mass instances of "insubordination" and refusal of soldiers to go into battle forced Nixon and Kissinger to end the U.S. ground campaign in Vietnam. It was supposedly due to these acts of rebellion by G.I.'s that Nixon had to focus on an air campaign instead. The films' narrator tells us that "with the air assault coming mainly from aircraft carriers, sailors and airmen became the center of the G.I. movement." It is noted that on the U.S.S. Coral Sea 1,200 enlisted men and women signed a petition demanding that their ship stay home. Shortly thereafter Air Force personnel began to participate in the open revolt by refusing to provide intelligence to U.S. leadership.
Former U.S. naval officer Ron McMahan is quoted in the film as saying "we truly believed what would stop that war was when the soldiers stopped fighting it." It appears that to a great extent that came to pass. One must wonder what would happen today if these types of open refusals to fight began to multiply. Whatever the answer to this question, seeing Sir! No Sir helped to restore my faith in human beings and their willingness to stand up and fight for what they believe in, even under the most difficult and trying of circumstances, and against the longest of odds.