Fact: Jane Fonda’s biggest fans in her antiwar tours were American GIs. Fact: returning soldiers were the vanguard of the out-of-Vietnam movement by the end of the 1960s. Fact: far more veterans of the military now serving in Congress are Democrats than are Republicans. Fact: U.S. soldiers are deserting at a rate greater than at any time since Vietnam.
This is just a smattering of context for Sir! No Sir!, a new documentary that restricts itself to resistance to the Vietnam War within the military. The feature, which opens at the Ridge on Friday (July 21), doesn’t mention Iraq and doesn’t really need to. The concept of citizen soldiers invoking their right to remain citizens is crucial to modern democracy, and it’s certainly foremost in the thoughts of writer-director David Zeiger, who launched his film after stewing over its subject for more than three decades.
“I avoided doing this movie for as long as I could,” says the filmmaker, on a cellphone call from somewhere near his home in Manhattan. “On a certain level, I never intended to make this thing, because I felt like the time had passed for this story to even be noticed. In the ’90s, when I first started making films, the ’60s had been caricatured thoroughly and people were pretty much Vietnamed out. It really was the Iraq war that changed the climate so that this story would be, and had to be, listened to.”
Just because people might be ready to hear it, and the participants would be willing to give their testimony, didn’t mean the thing would tell itself.
“I knew it would be tough to make: expensive, with a lot of obstacles,” Zeiger continues. “This story has been so thoroughly buried, I knew it would take a lot of digging to get it out there. I thought it would be emotionally draining too, and that’s one of the things that scared me off. But what I found as the process went along is that it became much more celebratory. This gave a lot of people a chance to tell their stories within a context that would inspire others. The conversations certainly did conjure up painful memories, but overwhelmingly it was a positive experience for everyone involved.”
While struggling to attain conscientious- objector status during the war, Zeiger himself, originally from Los Angeles, washed up in conservative Killeen, Texas. Paradoxically, that military town sported several antiwar hot spots, including the Oleo Strut, a place that figures prominently in the film, which reunites servicemen active in the resistance movement with other figures from the era, including Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland.
Fonda, whose son, Troy Garity, narrates the movie, comes across a bit differently than her critics would have her, especially when you see her performing for thousands of GIs—although her FTA (Fuck the Army) tour is definitely not your Bob Hope USO show.
“You have to remember that by 1971,” the director explains, “there was a general hatred of the military within the army itself. I mean, ‘FTA’ was a common greeting among soldiers, and that was just accepted as part of the culture of the military—that level of defiance and antiwar sentiment was considered normal. That year, the Pentagon commissioned a poll of enlisted men and found that more than half of the people in uniform had engaged in some form of protest.”
Soldiers were not just standing against the immorality and ultimate uselessness of the war but were fighting for recognition of what they had already been through and, worse, been forced to do. Until the early ’70s, there was no medical condition known as posttraumatic stress syndrome.
“The syndrome that Vietnam veterans were struggling with was not just a result of having been in combat,” Zeiger says. “It was the kind of combat in which civilians were wantonly killed and all that went with that. It became a political issue to recognize the particular nature of fighting in that kind of war.”
In Zeiger’s view, what Americans are living through today, with a new citizens’ army bringing soldiers to two or three rotations through the chaos in Iraq, is an extension of what went criminally wrong under Richard Nixon. Certainly, the “swiftboating” of potent antiwar activists started then, with some of the same people responsible for smearing John Kerry already hard at work in the ’70s.
“You have to think back to the era of Watergate,” Zeiger concludes, “when every bad intention of a corrupt government began to be thwarted.”
He points out that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were close by Richard Nixon’s side when everything came crashing down. “And they have made it their personal lifetime missions to reverse all that was achieved in that era and to redefine the 1960s on their terms. It’s our job to deny them that dubious victory.”
Jeff Schutts, A history instructor at Douglas College in New Westminster and Coquitlam, has long been intimately involved with the material tackled in Sir! No Sir!. In fact, when the Georgia Straight catches up with him, he is putting up posters for the film along Commercial Drive. Schutts is part of a panel at the Ridge on opening night, but during the Reagan era, the Illinois-born educator was stationed in Germany as an officer in the U.S. army. He finally mustered out as a conscientious objector and was drawn to academia when he began a serious study of resistance to foreign adventure within the ranks of his native nation’s military.
Earlier this month, Schutts saw the film in Castlegar, as part of the Our Way Home reunion of draft-dodgers and antiwar activists. In his view, the growth of an in-house resistance is happening much more quickly in this conflict than during the last one. But it’s early days yet.
“We’re still in the personal-conscience stage,” he declares, soon after plunking down his masking tape. “We’re at the stage where there are many people who have refused to redeploy and some have, in fact, gone to jail. But we’re almost at the point where some soldiers, and even officers, are actively calling for others to do the same.”
He points to the case of 1st Lieut. Ehren Watada, a 28-year-old native of Hawaii who is currently under charges at Fort Lewis, in Washington, where he faces nearly eight years in military prison for refusing to fight in what he calls an illegal war.
“Watada has declared that he is not a pacifist,” Schutts says, “and he would be willing to fight for his country in a real emergency—not one created from whole cloth by Halliburton and its friends in the White House. This is only the beginning, with leaders emerging as role models in a new and widespread resistance movement.”
The local historian estimates that as many as 200 uniformed men and women have fled to Canada since the Iraq adventure began. (More than 50,000 draft-agers came during Vietnam.) He agrees with Zeiger that the extreme right wing in the U.S. has succeeded in rewriting history where veterans are concerned.
“You know, the vets had a huge role, perhaps the leading role in ending that conflict. And the vast majority of them went on to contribute to society in meaningful ways. In fact, statistics show that a disproportionate number went into some kind of public service as a way of feeling useful, or to make up for things they felt were wrong. And they still need to be recognized for that.”
Some recognition comes on August 13 in the form of another gathering of military war resisters at the Peace Arch, as a tie-in with the convention of Veterans for Peace, in Seattle the previous week.
“There’s a standing agreement,” Schutts acknowledges, “so that people from both sides can meet and have a barbecue without having to worry about being snatched at the border.”