I had a close encounter of sorts watching Sir! No Sir!, David Zeiger's film about the mass anti-Vietnam War movement inside the U.S. military.
I watched an advance DVD copy on my laptop on a flight to Los Angeles.
Beside me was an amiable guy who looked like a young Brian Dennehy and who turned out to be ex-Special Forces. He watched the movie over my shoulder and later seemed to have absorbed most of it without benefit of audio.
I thought he might be offended by the movie's theme, but he turned out to be from a military family and had uncles who'd been in 'Nam.
And despite the government-sanctioned myths today about brave fighting men being betrayed back home by Jane Fonda and hippie traitors, he said most military people knew that Vietnam was a case of soldiers opting not to fight.
Sir! No Sir! is a movie about righting this re-write of history, wrapped around the debunking of a single powerful myth -- that hippie protesters spat on American soldiers at San Francisco airport as they returned from Indochina.
There are practical reasons why it didn't happen -- the biggest being that soldiers would not have returned home to a public airport, but would have been received on base and processed.
The Pentagon's own figures show more than a half-million "incidents of desertion" during the war, and Sir! No Sir! is loaded with footage of civilian protesters and military men marching arm-in-arm.
But at a time when there's another war approaching quagmire status, it's obviously not in the U.S. government's interest to remember a time when its soldiers said no.
Sir! No Sir! offers a wide spectrum of disillusioned ex-military men who between them were part of a movement that published more than 200 underground anti-war newspapers at military locations. They include ex-Green Beret Donald Duncan; Louis Font, a West Point honours grad who became the first West Pointer to refuse to fight a war, and Billy Dean Smith, a young black soldier who was charged with a "fragging" murder in clear retribution for his anti-war activities. (Fragging refers to assassination of an officer by his own troops, usually by a grenade.)
Interestingly, the film avoids the most obvious tale of anti-war soldiers, that of John Kerry, whose political lynching in the '04 presidential race said everything you need to know about the desire to pretend soldiers never said no.
Coolly told without histrionics, Sir! No Sir! is a solid, valuable piece of filmmaking, and proof that documentarians can and should swim against the political tide of the moment.
More than a look back at the '60s," Sir! No Sir! is an object lesson in how a government can foster myths to rewrite uncomfortable history. With footage of U.S. soldiers and civilian protesters arm in arm, and a debunking of the myth of "hippies spitting on soldiers" at the San Francisco airport, we get a valuable picture of how the Vietnam war quagmire really imploded.