ONE of the biggest differences between the war and occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and its allies and the US war in Viet Nam is that the US armed forces are not in crisis. Two years after invading Iraq, despite protests by millions around the world including in the U.S., suicide bombings, kidnappings and its own 1,700 soldiers dead, the Bush government shows no sign of withdrawing.
In contrast, three decades ago, the U.S. sent 3 million soldiers to Indochina and fought for 15 years before it was forced to concede defeat in 1975, mainly because of the Vietnamese people’s intransigent revolutionary struggle, but also because of the near-collapse of its armed forces, combined with the deep anti-war sentiment that had developed at home.
Sir! No, sir! is the name of a timely new documentary by David Zeiger about US soldiers who turned against the war in Viet Nam and became part of the movement against that genocide, which ravaged that nation’s lands, killed some 4 million Vietnamese, and left millions more mutilated.
Some of these soldiers were radical youth who were drafted and continued their anti-war activities on their bases; others were radicalized by the horrors they witnessed and deserted or refused to fight; yet others were veterans who had never questioned their government until then. At the same time, a deep-going anti-racist civil rights struggle was taking place in the U.S., especially affecting black and Puerto Rican soldiers, who were often among those sent on the most dangerous missions.
In Zeiger’s film – which recently won an award at the Los Angeles Film Festival – Terry Whitmore, a Black Marine from Memphis, Tennessee, describes what he saw on television while he lay wounded from battle in a hospital in 1968. Rebellions had broken out all over the U.S. after civil right rights leader the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
"I saw more tanks on the streets of Memphis than I saw in Vietnam. All of a sudden, men with the same uniforms I wore had dogs and tanks in my own neighborhood, where I had a baby daughter I'd never seen," recalled Whitmore, who a year earlier had received a Purple Heart from President Lyndon B. Johnson himself. "Seeing dogs and troops chasing Black people up and down the streets of Memphis, I knew something was wrong. Suddenly, nothing made sense anymore," he said.
Groups like GIs United Against the War in Vietnam, which formed after an anti-war meeting by soldiers at Fort Jackson in South Carolina in 1969, spread throughout military bases and won national support, despite repression that included court martial and jail sentences for speaking out. Activists set up anti-war coffeehouses (Zeiger worked at one for two years) near bases; anti-war GI newspapers flourished and circulated throughout bases, with names like Vietnam GI, Bond, Fatigue Press, and others.
Soldiers led anti-war marches dressed in their uniforms and fatigues, including one on October 12, 1968 called "GIs and Vets March for Peace" in San Francisco – a major point of embarkation for Viet Nam –, where 500 active-duty GIs and 15,000 civilians participated.
In April of 1971, more than 1,200 Viet Nam veterans organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War camped out for several days in front of the Capitol in Washington leading up to a massive demonstration on April 24. Legless men silently filed past the White House, 60 veterans tried to turn themselves in as war criminals, some 600 marched past the Capitol’s steps, calling out the names of their friends who had been killed and hurling down their medals on the steps.
In Vietnam, it was harder for soldiers to organize, but as the war dragged on, more and more soldiers disobeyed orders and refused to go into battle (The US War Department reported 503,926 "incidents of desertion," according to a New York Times article dated August 20, 1974). A growing number turned to drugs and some even killed their officers – whom they viewed as oppressors – in a practice known as "fragging (throwing a fragmentation grenade)." Some soldiers were able to carry out political acts like the Christmas Eve, 1969, "illegal" protest by 50 US soldiers in Saigon, cited on Zeiger’s website, www.sirnosir.com.
On November 9, 1969, the New York Times ran a full-page ad signed by 1,365 active-duty GIs, many of them stationed in Vietnam, stating "We are opposed to American involvement in the war in Vietnam¼ We speak, believing our views are shared by many of our fellow servicemen. Join us!" The ad carried their name, rank and station, and called on people to attend upcoming anti-war demonstrations – it was the first such ad in the country’s history.
As the years went by, the US government found that its troops – a third of whom were draftees – were increasingly less dependable.
In a June 7, 1971 article in the Armed Forces Journal, Col. Robert D. Heinl Jr., a Marine Corps historian, wrote, "By every conceivable indicator, our Army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden and dispirited where not near mutinous." It was the beginning of the end.
Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War, by Fred Halstead (Pathfinder Press, 1973, 881pp) p.607, first edition.