The new documentary, “Sir No Sir!” , is receiving a lot of positive buzz. The film is about anti-war soldiers (both veterans and those still on duty) during the Vietnam War — a largely underanalyzed story, except for books like this one. If you are in an area where it plays, I strongly suggest taking the time to see it.
I post about the film because it features two incredible anti-war activists from the Vietnam era, Susan Schnall and Howard Levy, both of whom still work in the health sector today. Schnall is an administrator at the Health and Hospitals Corporation of New York City and works primarily at Bellevue Hospital. Levy is now a dermatologist at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. I interviewed them last year for an undergraduate capstone project, and they are two of the most principled and inspirational people I have ever met. (The latter adjective is far too overused, but these two deserve it.) Both were unique anti-war activists because they agitated from within the military and knew about the toll it took on American troops and Vietnamese civilians. What made the GI anti-war movement so different was the seemingly paradoxical solidarity it sought to forge between these two.
In 1968, Schnall was a navy nurse stationed at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in the Bay Area.
Schnall felt it increasingly difficult to reconcile her desire to heal with the destructiveness of the military in Vietnam. She received a court martial for dropping anti-war leaflets on a navy base from her friend’s jet. For this, she received six months of hard labor in the following year, and afterwards, became a major speaker and organizer in the GI movement that Sir No Sir! chronicles. You can read some of the documents that Sir No Sir!’s website has about her case. There’s also this interview from a book of interviews and photographs that came out a while back. That’s Susan holding a copy of her court martial. The print version of the book, A Matter of Conscience:
GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, is really worth tracking down and checking out.
Doctor Howard Levy served as a captain at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Asked to train green berets/special forces in 1967 in dermatology, Levy refused. Court-martialed for incendiary statements that he made about what special forces were doing in Vietnam and for the refusal itself, Levy marshalled a very sophisticated legal defense that sought to show his statements about green berets weree in fact true, and therefore, that aiding the special forces with his specialized medical knowledge would further human suffering and breach his sense of medical ethics. He did not succeed and received three years’ imprisonment at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. I have grossly oversimplified Levy’s case and recommend reading two documents if you have further interest The first is the Supreme Court decision that ultimately upheld the results of the court martial. Pay particular attention, however, to the dissenting opinion. The second is an article from the Wisconsin Law Review in 1994 by Robert Strassfield, a law professor at Case Western. The citation is: Robert N. Strassfield, “The Vietnam War on Trial: Court Martial of Dr. Howard B. Levy.” Wisconsin Law Review 4: 1994: 839-963. If you don’t have access to the law review through your university or public library, let me know, and I can send it to you in PDF.
Both of these are huge documents but they are also well worth reading. They certainly developed my thinking on how to conceptualize war as a public health issue. I blogged a few days ago about how we ought to see interconnections among social problems, including those often not analyzed as “public health issues.” The appearance of the Lancet article on Iraq casualties and public health research on dioxin’s effects on Vietnam vets, I think, show that this kind of broad thinking is taking place. We should all think about distinct public health arguments against the war: everything from the lost lives and injuries incurred by Iraqis to the mental health toll it takes on veterans to the costs it extracts on social/health services domestically.