David Zeiger’s new documentary film, Sir, No Sir!, captures one particular day in 1970 that the U.S. military establishment desperately wants you to forget. It was Armed Forces Day, and across the country, years of rising resistance to the war in Vietnam culminated in a nationwide anti-war protest by active military personnel that shut down planned celebrations at 28 U.S. bases. In fact, tens of thousands of GIs were involved in resistance to the Vietnam War, printing over 100 underground antiwar newspapers and coordinating their actions in a string of activist coffeehouses that sprung up near bases all across the country.
Today, however, that memory has been all but erased. And when Zeiger, an L.A.-based filmmaker, realized that soldiers speaking out about the Iraq War were being largely ignored because of military control of the war message, he felt he had to act. A former activist in the antiwar coffeehouse circuit, Zeiger found loads of footage about what was a big news story in the 1960s and ’70s, showing that thousands of soldiers thought it their duty to speak out against war back then. He hopes to empower those who need to do so today.
CityBeat: Was the GI movement against the Vietnam War not well known?
David Zeiger: Today, almost no one knows about it, but at the time, in fact, a lot of people did know about it. The demonstrations of GIs at Fort Hood for example – there were two demonstrations on Armed Forces Day, demonstrations in 1970 and 1971, that involved thousands of GIs – those were covered by all the local media in Texas. Walter Cronkite did a two part series on the GI underground press. But in the years since, what has happened is literally people’s memories have been reshaped by the Reagan administration, which has been obviously carried over with the Bush administrations.
The politics were that the Vietnam War was a noble war fought bravely by soldiers who came home only to be spat on and vilified by selfish middle class hippies who condemned them for the war and who betrayed them. So the memory of what actually happened has been buried.
Was there an active campaign on the part of the DOD to try to scrub this out of memory?
The political agenda of erasing the GI movement from the memory of Vietnam was set by Reagan himself. He declared in that speech, “I will never send American troops again to a war that their government’s not willing to win.” And then, in the early ’80s, was a campaign largely orchestrated by the Reagan administration to “honor the vet.” This was around the time that the Vietnam memorial was built. This was very much the project of General Westmoreland, who had been the commander in Vietnam up until the Tet Offensive, and who was roundly hated by the troops, very similar to the role [U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld has today. The undercover political message was that they fought a good war. And if you say the war was not good then you’re not honoring the vets.
But people who were against the war surely remember?
There’s a lot of willingness – even on the part of very progressive people – to buy into that. The Presidio Mutiny was one of the biggest events of the San Francisco antiwar movement during that era – there was actually one really bad Hollywood movie made about it. But books about Vietnam never mention it. Even the Vietnam history that was on PBS in the late-’70s, early-’80s doesn’t say anything about it. These events have been literally, willfully written out. I got an e-mail from someone who said, “For years, I told people about this stuff and they thought I was crazy.”
And soldiers used to publish underground newspapers?
They were coming out of bases, largely. A lot of people had access to mimeograph machines – company clerks and whatever. When I worked at the Oleo Strut coffee house in Killeen, Texas, which was off Fort Hood, the civilians helped get the printer [to put out a paper called The Fatigue Press]. But all the articles were written by guys in the military and it was all laid out by them. Some of them had some staying power because they had a support base outside of the military. But others might come out with three or four issues and suddenly they got transferred or kicked out or jailed – which also happened.
Were there consequences for GIs who did these things?
Absolutely. There’s no actual law against publishing – it’s not in the Code of Military Justice – but there’s one catch-all regulation that you can’t do anything that undermines good order and discipline in the military.
Were these coffeehouses and newspapers connected as a kind of network?
Yeah. It was mainly a fundraising network – they weren’t connected as a political organization. But there were a couple of national organizations that dedicated themselves to supporting the underground newspapers and coffeehouses at military bases. From about 1968 to 1971, they were very successful – there were maybe 30 to 40 places that existed near military bases. Even in Saigon: the National Lawyers Guild had a military counseling office in Saigon for GIs who were charged with fragging, for GIs who had deserted, to provide whatever legal aide they could for those guys.
Why do this film now?
Iraq. It was the buildup and the invasion of Iraq that essentially made this story new and relevant again. I realized if I don’t tell this story now, then after the Iraq War, it’s definitely going to be too much in the past. It’s cool to make a film that says nothing about the present but everyone sees it as a film about the present.
Is there a movement among the soldiers in the Iraqi war to get us out of Iraq?
Absolutely. There have been more individuals who have refused to go to Iraq or refused to return to Iraq in the last couple of years than in the first few years of the Vietnam War. There are some very public cases. The one that is becoming a big case now is Lieutenant Ehren Watada. There’s Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who’s in prison now. There’s Petty Officer Pablo Paredes down in San Diego. [Army Specialist] Katherine Jashinski. The fact that these soldiers are choosing to very publicly refuse and oppose the war is significant because they’re setting themselves up for the worst kind of military retribution, which is not just putting you in prison but declaring that you’re betraying your buddies.
This is how the military has re-shaped things to undercut an antiwar movement in the military. In Vietnam, you went in and out of the war as individuals. One of the things the military does now is they keep units together; you’re there to protect yourself and your buddies.
Have you connected with that movement?
Yeah. Iraq Veterans Against the War, which was formed a couple of years ago on the first anniversary of the war, has been working very closely with the film and we’ve actually done a program with them of sending free DVD’s of the film to anyone in the service who wants them.
Are soldiers aware of an antiwar movement and how it pertains to them?
I’m not sure how much debate there is going on inside the military about the nature of the war and the justness of it. I know that if you saw the film Occupation Dreamland, which was the second film about Iraq troops – the one that came out after Gunner Palace – it revealed the conflict that exists inside a unit of the 101st Airborne. It really showed that there’s not the kind of monolithic unity that people think there is.
It’s clear that soldiers have questions about their role. But do they have contact with solutions?
It’s hard to know. One of the things that influenced a lot of troops in Vietnam was the Vietnamese people. There was a lot more freedom in Vietnam, as soldiers, to be out there among the people if they wanted to. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Iraq.