Common to the point of cliche is the story that soldiers returned from the Vietnam War, met at the San Francisco Airport by hippie anti-war protesters, spit on by girls with love beads, who called the warriors "baby-killers".
However, this story seems only to exist for soldiers in Hollywood movies like "Rambo" and folks in the anti-John Kerry smear group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The "spitting image", was almost totally-manufactured to erase a rebellious reality recovered with stirring immediacy in David Ziger's "Sir No Sir!".
That reality is that many American soldiers, in many different ways, joined the anti-war movement--when they returned or while still in uniform.
"Sir No Sir!" perfectly captures the sense of how the Vietnam War, a maliginant a force as the massive bombing raids over rice fields and villages, also swept over the country from the mid-1960s, gaining ferocity through the war's close in 1975---and the moveemnt to end the war was an equal and opposite driving force. Ziger mixes archival footage with current interviews, to focus on several Vietnam veterans' testimonies. Discovering these lost stories, no one can doubt that (no
less than combat), standing on individual conscience demands courage. Refusing orders to go to Vietnam or refusing to fight after being there meant facing not only court martial but, years in prison. Simply encourgaing other soldiers not to go, was often termed "fomenting mutiny" and risked serious prison terms. A Navy nurse was courtmartialed just for marching in a protest wearing her uniform.
We see the GI Coffeehouses, set up in the small towns near American military bases--and forbidden to soldiers who were drawn there like thirsty men in a desert. Anti-war veterans created newspapers, with names like "Fatigue News", "The Last Harrass" and "Fed Up", eagerly awaited contraband shared in barracks across the country. In a real way, American soldiers were the beatng heart of the anti-Vietnam War movemnt---the friends, brothers and boyfriends of the more familiar images of students and activists. So artfully has Ziger allowed Vietnam veterans' voices voices to carry his film, we're feel we;re back in the 1960s vortex.
This is the absolutely right film at the right time, as support for the war in Iraq continues to decline and as resistance by American soldiers begins to grow: from vetreans of the war in Iraq forming grups like Operation Truth to soldiers like Camilo Mejia, who spent a year in prison for refusing to do a second tour in Iraq. (***You can hear Camilo Mejia speak Sat. Nov.5, 7:30pm,Holy Trinity, 2730 East 31st St. Minneapolis***).
Of special note are African-American soldiers, often disproportionately put in harm's way on the battlefield, yet, also increasingly awakened by the Black Power Movemnt. They make deep connections between their experiences in a still-racist U.S. military and domestic discrimination. In the voices of these black soldiers, Ziger brings back pieces of the more militant aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, which has been as erased, villafied or both--as the GIs' anti-war movement has been.
Ziger is even bold enough to reclaim Jane Fonda,who has been completely demonized (and misrepresented) for her anti-war activism. Wonderful footage of Fonda's collaboration with fellow actor Donald Southerland and others to make an irreverent USO show that toured Japan and the Phillipines: "FTA"---a play on an U.S. Army recruitment slogan "Fun Travel Adventure", known alternately as "Free The Army" or "F%$! The Army"---and was a resounding success with the soliders who saw it.
But, the core of Ziger's film is the warrior resisters, both in their grainy black and white, poignantly younger selves and the middle-aged men they are now, From a young army doctor to white working class or urban black draftees, from individual refusals to participate in acts sometimes termed "genocidal" (such as pilots who wouldn't fly bombing runs) to mass resistance like organzing to stop the USS Constellation
from leaving the San Diego port for Vietnam, this is a history the current war-makers don't want us to know.
Today's anti-war groups like Veterans for Peace (VFP) and Operation Truth -have historical and, in the case of VFP, some members who worked to end the longest war in American history. The national VFP president, David Cline is one veteran in the film. To bring this full circle, John Lamboke is another Vietnam veteran, also in the film, who did years of research and demolished the myth that soliders were spit on by anti0war protesters, documented in his book "The Spittig Image".
SIR NO SIR fulfills what all great documentaries do: discovers something we might never have seen otherwise. In honoring these soldiers who became warriors for peace, David Ziger's SIR NO SIR inspires us to redefine what true patriotism is and that "serving one's country" can be by waging peace.