Rewriting Vietnam began some 10 years after the war ended. Pundits and presidents retold the story of 58,000 American dead, making them martyrs stabbed in the back by a weak-willed public who couldn't man themselves up enough to finish the job.
By the mid-1980s, Sylvester Stallone's steerlike face writhed on the big screen as he begged, "Sir, do we get to win this one?" Any public mention of the American war in Vietnam demanded tortured, passive reasoning. One example is former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's claim in Paul Hendrickson's book The Living and the Dead that "the nation took itself into Vietnam"--as if it jumped, instead of being pushed.
Filmmaker David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir! is an essential revisit to the war and its consequences. It's a trove of history delved up from the public memory hole. In particular, it stresses the unpopularity of the war among those who fought it. Zeiger, a '60s activist turned successful documentary filmmaker, reminds a new generation of some forgotten details: the stockade rebellions and moratoriums, and the 20,000-strong membership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Sir! No Sir! plays a one-night-only engagement at the Reel Work Film Festival on April 27. It will be released later this spring.
METRO SANTA CRUZ: Had you planned on making this movie since the Iraq war began?
ZEIGER: I wasn't planning on making this film, since I felt the time had passed. Vietnam was old news, and it just wasn't going to resonate. It was the buildup to the Iraq war that made me think it was necessary to tell the story.
METRO SANTA CRUZ: You see parallels between Iraq and Vietnam, then?
ZEIGER: The Iraq war is no more just or right than Vietnam was. I think ultimately in the coming year the soldiers will become the elephant in the house of the American military planners. They're planning on digging in in Iraq, they're not leaving. There is already an organization of Iraq Vets against the war. I understand that when Cindy Sheehan was in Crawford, there was a fairly steady stream of active duty soldiers from Fort Hood coming to see her.
METRO SANTA CRUZ: The Robin Williams movie 'Good Morning, Vietnam' was particularly disappointing, since I'd previously heard the antiwar broadcasts of underground Vietnam radio DJ 'Dave Rabbit' collected on a Vanguard LP. What did you find out about 'Rabbit'?
ZEIGER: No one knew who this guy was. He and his engineers worked out a way to tap into Armed Forces Radio, and they did this phony promo: "Starting tomorrow, Radio Vietnam is going to change, Radio First Termer is going on the air, and if you don't listen we'll reup you for another term."
It was classic pirate radio. He broadcast 23 days straight, three hours a night, and then he dismantled everything and got out of there. After Vietnam, he went off back to Dallas and lived his life. One day, he's helping his 14-year-old son do research about Vietnam, and he actually discovered our film's site. We did an interview with him that will be on the DVD release of Sir! No Sir!. It's too bad the title Good Morning, Vietnam has been taken. It'll make Dave's story harder to tell.
METRO SANTA CRUZ: Another entertainer who emerges from 'Sir! No Sir!', Jane Fonda, seen in clips from the concert film 'FTA,' in front of an audience of soldiers. The troops are obviously glad to see her, which certainly doesn't jibe with the idea of the infamous Hanoi Jane.
ZEIGER: Those clips are from the 1971 tour; her second tour, with the picture of the tank, is in 1972. Interestingly, the 1972 picture of her on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft tank [as pored over in Jean-Luc Godard's Lettre à Jane] was something nobody paid attention to at the time. Jane Fonda wasn't the only one to say that it was right for the North Vietnamese to defend themselves.
METRO SANTA CRUZ:'Sir! No Sir!' mentions the underground newspapers and newsletters that the soldiers read, as well as the coffee houses outside of many garrison towns. You worked at the Oleo Strut, a resistance coffeehouse at Killeen, Texas, close to Fort Hood. What was that like?
ZEIGER:A wild place. On weekends we brought up bands from Austin. I've heard since then that Stevie Ray Vaughan came up but it was just when he was a kid. Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs played there. We had a radical bookstore, a counseling center and a newspaper office.
The first year it was open, there were almost weekly attacks from the local goat-ropers--high school kids. They'd come and try to bust the place up. And every time we'd put the sign up, someone would come and throw red paint on it. The coffeehouse building has been changed into an office complex, but there's still red paint on the sidewalk.
METRO SANTA CRUZ:How many officers were 'fragged'--killed by their own men--in the Vietnam war?
The Pentagon documented around 300 or 400 fraggings. By 1972, it was a problem that the Pentagon openly talked about.
METRO SANTA CRUZ:According to 'Sir! No Sir!' the Vietnam War had 503,926 incidents of desertion. Where did you get that number?
ZEIGER:The figure comes from the Pentagon and from a book called The Rise and Fall of the American Military. An incident of desertion is someone being absent for more than 30 days, it's not just showing up a couple of hours late. The soldiers didn't run from battle. The more common story was, the guys go out on patrol, they go hide in the bush and then they come back. This number reflects a very wide range of political views. It wasn't all in direct opposition to the war. But it was certainly not a resounding statement of approval on the part of the GIs.