I had a wonderful conversation with David Zeiger, the director of the film "Sir! No Sir!" It's opening at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland and the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco this Friday, April 7, for a week-long run - maybe longer if the demand is great - so get out to see this film that documents the sustained and extremely successful anti-war efforts of enlisted and formally enlisted soldiers during the Vietnam years.
As usual, the African American men who resisted were targeted for daring to disobey orders. They were given longer sentences than their white comrades and, in the case of Billy Dean Smith, used as a scapegoat for the growing dissatisfaction with the war as it dragged to a halt in 1975, officers killed by their men in a practice called "fragging."
At the press conference for "What's Going On: California and the Vietnam Era," an exhibit at the Oakland Museum August 2004-February 2005 (http://www.museumca.org/exhibit/exhi_whats_going_on.html), people reminisced about the Free Speech Movement and the Black Panther Party at UC Berkeley. But, as a teaching moment, so much was left unsaid, artifacts left to the imagination. Minus the historic perspective, much was lost.
A friend of mine, when I asked her about the GI Resistance Movement, remembered the brothers who were stomped when they refused to be used as instruments of war at home to quell the "riots" in the late '60s and that the exhibit at the OM was targeted more towards those who remembered. This is not so with "Sir! No Sir!"
In this film, the director let the men and women who were there tell the story. Those profiled know what war feels like; they know the consequences of resisting orders; they know the butt of guns, the feel of batons and combat boots on their necks; they know the fear that comes with not knowing, as one GI says, what the outcome is, yet knowing that their action is the only choice their consciences would let them make - whether that was mutiny, desertion, chaining themselves to other soldiers and seeking refuge in a church in San Francisco, or simply trying to organize other African American enlisted men around the question of Blacks in the military at a time when the war at home called Jim Crow and segregation was claiming almost as many casualties.
Wanda Sabir: You cover so much in just under two hours. Talk about the way you frame the story with such powerful narratives. How did you locate these people? Were they people you'd met in your own anti-war work?
David Zeiger: It's a big story, (the director states modestly).
WS: It's a huge story! I concur.
I was wondering, since you are in Southern California, if you knew of the art exhibition at the Oakland Museum last year on the Vietnam War and California as a military industrial complex, staging ground, launching pad and resettlement camp for returning GIs and Vietnamese refugees.
DZ: Absolutely! That exhibit is now at the African American Museum in LA.
WS: Many of the artifacts I saw were unclear, with regards to their significance, like the war newspapers, the leaflets dropped on the military bases and much of the unrest, turmoil, especially in 1968. Missed completely were the connections between GIs as aggressors in Asia and GIs as aggressors at home in response to civil unrest after King's murder and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
I was a kid, so I missed all of this. When the war was ending I was about 10 or 11. I didn't know what any of this meant when I went to the exhibit. I didn't know about the newspapers. When I saw the anti-war leaflets dropped on the military bases, Jane Fonda's involvement - I didn't know the huge impact of any of this or the consequences to celebrities' careers.
I wasn't aware of the extent of organization present in the anti-war movement or the war against the war inside the military industrial complex on all levels and all branches - officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted soldiers - a fact covered so well in "Sir! No Sir!"
Then there's the pivotal year of 1968 and the "Tèt Offensive" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tet_Offensive), the year America lost the most soldiers. "Sir! No Sir!" would have given a much broader dimension to "What's Going On? California and the Vietnam War." However, you said that 9/11 made the story you tell with the film more relevant.
DZ: It was the impetus for making the film, yes.
WS: Do you want to talk about that?
DZ: Yeah, you know that's interesting. By the way, you're right that that exhibit doesn't have anything about the GI Movement in it. I think that's reflective of how thoroughly that whole reality has been eliminated from public consciousness in all spectrums - it's not there. Since I have been making films in the '90s, I know this story because I was a part of it. Again, I think it was a reflection of what I'm talking about, the fact that that time, the '90s, it wasn't the story that I felt would have any resonance that people would pay attention to. Vietnam and that era had been so caricatured and stereotyped, and everyone was kind of sick of it.
Sept. 11 really was on the whole essentially the declaration of war on the world by George (W.) Bush. Particularly the invasion of Afghanistan and the build-up to the invasion of Iraq literally compelled me to make the film. (I thought,) "OK, now this story has to be told!" (The director laughs) You know what I mean?
DZ: And now the story will not be about the old days; it will be about today as well. That has definitely been the response we have gotten so far, even before its opening in theatres, at festivals and limited screenings we've been doing.
WS: I think it's really great. I love the way the film begins with the personal stories - how you use the soldiers' stories to tell this history. When you found out about what was going on at home, you were in Europe at school … got called to Texas or something.
DZ: Close. What happened was, the reason I didn't get drafted was I happened to be in Europe when I registered for the draft and when you register for the draft overseas you are put into a draft board in Washington, D.C., and they didn't draft anyone from that draft board because it was mostly ambassadors' kids and whatnot. I was going to school.
WS: Lucky you, huh?
DZ: Yeah exactly, lucky. But when I came back, I reached a point where I felt I didn't have a choice in my own mind but to do what I could to fight against the war. And I met some people from Texas who were a part of the GI Movement - Oleo Strut, a coffee house in Killeen, Texas, from 1968 to 1972, where GIs on their way to Vietnam or "shell-shocked" soldiers returning home via Fort Hood were able to turn the shell shock to anger to anti-war action.
That's how I ended up going down there. I mean, hell, if you want to end a war, what better place to do it than from inside the military? And that's what was going on.
WS: You were an early "embedded" person?
DZ: (He laughs) Yes, in a different way.
WS: How many people did you interview, and then how did you decide which stories to use to tell this story?
DZ: Good point, good question. We interviewed I think 60 people from all different aspects of the movement, and the way the choices were made - I mean there were a lot that went into it. It was kind of a matter of what events played the most pivotal role in pushing things along, in going from point A to point B. There were a lot of things that had similarities in terms of the nature of what happened.
There was also the question of where there was existing footage, archival material which helped the story without it just being (straight) interviews. All those kind of things go into it. We wanted to give as full a picture as we could in 90 minutes, which is a pretty short amount of time to cover the breath of the movement, considering how widespread it was.
A lot of the choices about what stories we told were along those lines: what was going to give the strongest sense of how this movement spread, how chaotic it was also and spontaneous.
WS: Yeah, yeah. One guy said he didn't even know about other resistance movements; he just knew it was something he had to do, so he resigned from the military. The other person was sent to a psychiatrist before they court marshaled him and the psychiatrist showed him a New York Times ad of all the soldiers who objected to the war. That was a cool psychiatrist! He was saying, "You're not crazy!"
DZ: That's exactly it. I love those stories because they give you a real sense of how this shit was everywhere. And you're right, going into a shrink and the shrink is supposed to tell you to go into battle, and what does he do, he pulls out proof that he's not alone and he should stand strong with what he's doing. That's a lot of how the stuff happened.
WS: As an underlying theme that doesn't connect necessarily with the war in Iraq but is connected of course to the idea of the value of resistance and resistance movements and how they can make a difference - is that one of the themes you want to resonate with your audiences, to put this in perspective and see what they can do with the material, the information?
DZ: There is an unspoken part of what I think is important about this film, and that is that sense you're describing, that sense of surprise at what everyone did and how far it went. Any good story and any good movement will surprise you. It has to come up with things you never expected to happen.
If you'd said in 1965 those first guys would stand up and say, "I'm not going to participate." If you had said then that within three years a movement which involved hundreds of underground papers, thousands of people demonstrating and literally almost bringing the military machine to a grinding halt, you would have been told, "You're crazy. There's no way that can happen."
I think there is an important thing to take away from this, which is you don't really know what the results of your actions will be, but you have to do it. You've got to take that stand.
WS: As you were talking, I was thinking that on another level that since people didn't necessarily know what the other enlisted person was doing, like the men who chained themselves together - or maybe it was the officer who later escaped to Canada (Keith Mather, Dr. Howard Levy) - he said when he was interrogated if he felt he had support to his action. And he said as he walked through the base, other men were giving him the "power" salute, "right ons" - this whole idea that there was something we could agree with regardless of other incompatible differences, that the war was wrong.
This illustrated how we know as people what's right and what's wrong, no matter what the propagandists are saying and how that was what connected us - basic human values, the golden rule is what connected all these people - officers to the enlisted, veterans to conscientious objectors abroad and in prison. I thought, like wow, there's hope, hope for humanity. We are not all void of ethical sentiments and things like that.
Then the creative ways this resistance was expressed, for example, a soldier sharing how he was in a mess line and learned through a whispered message that was being passed soldier to soldier that women and children were being massacred.
DZ: It's often being forced into the most horrendous situations where you've got to make the toughest choices where that humanity comes through.
WS: With regards to the release of the film near the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, April 30, 1975 (President Lyndon Johnson announced it officially May 7; see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/whos/whos-ford.html), was that on purpose?
DZ: Yes and no. Actually, we initially wanted to release the film a year ago, which was the 31st anniversary of the end of the war. But now that you mention it, yes.
WS: This was something I learned from the film. Just a month from now (March 31) …
DZ: The 31st anniversary …
WS: And then I thought about the anniversary of the 1906 earthquake, and the Vietnam War definitely shook the country and the world, so there are some other metaphorical parallels with April.
(We digress for a moment while I talk about 1906 earthquake exhibits at the Oakland Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Palace of the Legion of Honor. I recommend the Oakland Museum for the personal stories about the earthquake survivors who relocated to Oakland and the people who opened their homes to them.)
WS: You only profile one woman. Why is that? How is Susan Schnall, and what is she doing now?
DZ: She's great! She's still a nurse. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. In fact, she just got back from Vietnam. She participated in one of the reconciliation events that are happening.
(The reason, why there aren't more women) is partly because there were a lot fewer women in the military than there are now. This is a little bit of a weakness. There were a couple of other stories we were trying to find the people (to tell about). In Alabama, there was a women's Army Corp base; there was a lot of activity there. And there was a lot of activity in the Air Force, particularly at a base in Idaho.
One of the things we were really concerned about was to make sure the stories we told were told by the people in it, a part of the story, rather than a scholar. Unfortunately, we weren't able to find them.
All of that stuff is on the web; a lot of the other interviews are at http://www.sirnosir.com/home_reference_library.html. There is a timeline of the GI Movement and all kinds of original material and stuff like that at the library archives; it's incredible what's up there.
WS: How big was your team - how many cameras?
DZ: For the interviews there were just two of us - myself and May Rigler, who is a cinematographer, who also was one of the editors of the film, two editors and two graphics editors and an audio editor and couple of producers - a small team but we worked our asses off. One guy, James Lewes, the head of research, who lives in Philadelphia, had written his Ph.D. piece on the GI underground press, and he directed us to a lot of archives. We went to the National Archives and got personal stashes of original materials of people who'd been involved in the movement.
WS: There are the veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and the exhibit at the Oakland Museum last year tied the two together: the Vietnam resistors and those for a just, free and equal society. Are most Vietnam resistors, particularly those you talked to, still doing anti-war work?
DZ: A lot of them are, particularly those we interviewed are still involved, especially the guys out here: Keith Mather and Tom Benard, one of the people in WORMS, the Air Force interpreters, trained in Vietnamese, who flew over North Vietnam intercepting radio communications. When they saw the difference between what they knew was going on and what the American people were being told, they formed WORMS, which stood for We Openly Resist Military Stupidity. They are either Veterans for Peace or activist members in various other things. The Vietnam anti-war movement is the thing that defined their lives.
WS: Who is the man who said, someone had a gun pointed at him in a hole, while he had a gun pointing up and when he got out of the hole, he looked for the first time at someone he'd killed and he had many thoughts on his mind about who was going to tell his victim's mother he was dead, that this young soldier was also fighting for a cause he believed just, that he couldn't do this anymore?
DZ: That was Dave Kline from Miami. Dave and I were friends back then. We worked together at the Oleo Strut (at Fort Hood). When he was still in the military, they sent him to Fort Hood, and then when he got out he stayed and worked at the coffee house, and that's when I came down. Dave is actually national president for Veterans for Peace. You can tell by looking at his face, he went through some really hard times. He's kind of come back out of that in the last 10 years and has become an activist again.
WS: The archival footage in the Oleo Strut is really great, like that of the man who spoke of "what mattered was the body count." That was great footage. Did you tape that?
WS: But you were there then?
DZ: I was actually there until shortly after that footage was taken. That was made by this great collective of people in the '60s known as Newsreel and they made amazing films. They were real guerilla filmmakers. They just went in and shot the stuff, put it together and put it out there. That film was called "Summer of '68," and they spent about a week at the Oleo Strut. I think it's the only footage ever shot at a coffee house like that.
I'm not there, but my ex-wife is in the footage. She grew up in that town.
WS: You met her when you went down?
DZ: Yes, she's a young blonde woman behind a counter in a couple of scenes.
WS: Tell me about the benefit reading. And what are you raising money for, and who's going to be there.
DZ: The benefit screening (see details below) is for the Iraq Veterans Against the War, which is an organization formed about a year ago. It's grown tremendously in a year, and I think in the year coming up it is going to become a very important force in the entire political scene. We're making bootleg DVDs for them to distribute to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We want to help this organization the day before the film opens Friday, April 7, at the Grand Lake and the Red Vic in San Francisco to run for a week. If it is successful, it might move to other theatres in the Bay Area.
Keith Mather will be there, Michael Wong, Hal Muskat, (and others) who are all in the film, all from different aspects of the movement, as well as members of Veterans Against the War in Iraq. (Also present will be Aimee Allison, an Army conscientious objector, and Pablo Paredes, an Iraq War resister.)
WS: Will there be a discussion about the film? And how much is the admission for the benefit?
DZ: There will be a discussion afterwards. I think it is $8 in advance, $10 at the door. There will be music. It's going to be a nice event.
WS: Is there a website for Veterans Against the Iraq War?
DZ: There is a link at the "Sir! No Sir!" website.
WS: What happened to Billy Dean Smith, the African American GI arrested and charged with "fragging" - or throwing a fragmentation grenade into an officer's tent, killing him - who spent 22 months in solitary confinement before being acquitted?
Your film says he suffered mental illness from this, ended up homeless on the streets of Los Angeles and then later was sentenced to 10 years in prison, which he is currently serving. He said he was "chosen for the trial because (he) was an outspoken critic of the war."
DZ: In 2004 he was imprisoned. We are working with his family to see what we can do to help. He's in very bad shape psychologically and obviously will not get the help he needs in prison.
WS: Where is he at?
DZ: He was at Tehachapi, somewhere down in the San Diego area.
WS: Is he from California?
DZ: Yes, Los Angeles.
WS: The prison system, whenever it can, moves inmates away from their family support network.
DZ: It's just a heartbreaking story. He doesn't belong in prison. He needs help, like most people in prison.
WS: So he's supposed to be in there until 2014?
WS: He's certainly mentally ill. That was really clear. He's a casualty of war.
WS: I have a statement and then a question: The Vietnam War was a war on TV, I read. If the Last Poets were correct when they stated, "The revolution would be on TV and that we'd know it was the revolution because there wouldn't be any commercials" … Remember that?
DZ: Yeah …
WS: Well, this was it for sure. I guess all history can be disputed. Those histories where certain voices are noticeably absent, ignored, erased or silenced. Can you talk about the role of media, film in particular, in telling stories that give alternative perspectives on history, particularly disputed histories?
DZ: Let's see. I think that … I've always seen film as a medium of entertainment in the broadest sense of the word. Film works on such an emotional level with people. They are also more accessible than just about anything. I think film plays a really essential role in revealing aspects of history ignored or, as in this case, buried or replaced with a different view of history.
It's unfortunate. There have been books written about the GI Resistance Movement, some very powerful books. I think this film hopefully will actually have a broader impact on people's perceptions of the war and the GIs and all of those questions than the book was able to, because it can have a bigger audience and speak to people on an emotional level.