Boulder vets help chronicle Vietnam anti-war movement
Greg Glasgow, The Daily Camera
Think Vietnam and the '60s and the antiwar movement, and certain images come to mind: hippies inserting flowers into the barrels of rifles; students holding protests on campus; and brave soldiers returning from the front only to meet with hostility or indifference from the folks back home.
In his new documentary, "Sir! No Sir!," director David Zeiger tells a story that's not nearly as well remembered: the antiwar movement within the military during Vietnam. Starting with a few conscientious objectors in the mid-'60s, the movement grew through underground newspapers and counterculture-style coffeehouses for soldiers and eventually led to a lack of motivated troops so great the U.S. government was forced to step up its air war.
"The popular conception about the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement is that the antiwar movement was a student movement that reviled and spit on the soldiers who all fought bravely and came home to a public that didn't appreciate them," says Zeiger, whose film screens Saturday at the University of Colorado's International Film Series. "There's absolutely nothing in the public consciousness that inside the military there was a movement that linked up with the antiwar movement in the civilian world that had a huge impact on it and that had a big impact on the direction of the war."
The current war in Iraq is never mentioned in the film - that's by design, Zeiger says - but the subtext is clear. Iraq is another war many see as unjust, unnecessary or unwinnable, there's another civilian peace movement, and, already, Zeiger says, there are the beginnings of another antiwar movement among troops in Iraq.
"There are a lot of individuals either refusing to go to Iraq or refusing to return to Iraq after being there for a period of time. It's very similar to the 1965, 1966 period of the Vietnam War," says Zeiger, who first started the project filming the court martial of Camilo Mejia, one of the first Iraq soldiers who refused to return to combat. "There is an Iraq Veterans Against the War organization that was formed last year and has several hundred members at this point."
Among the events depicted in "Sir! No Sir!" is a 1970 antiwar campaign called "Connie Stay Home," in which activists in San Diego asked the public to cast unofficial ballots as to whether a battleship called the USS Constellation should redeploy to Vietnam. John Huyler and Ron McMahan, former soldiers who now live in Boulder, helped lead the effort. They both appear in the film, interviewed in Huyler's living room.
"It was just something to raise awareness, and all of a sudden here we are set up like Girl Scouts selling Girl Scout cookies in front of the Safeways and on the street corners," McMahan says of the campaign, "and I'll be darned if people - cops and service station attendants and grocery store clerks - weren't sitting there filling out ballots and folding them up and putting them in the box."
Unlike McMahan, Huyler, 60, never went to Vietnam, but after joining the ROTC at Princeton University and entering the Navy at age 18, his vague sense that the war was a mistake began to crystallize.
"I became a conscientious objector at the point where I saw a five-minute, black-and-white documentary of the faces of Vietnamese kids during bombing raids," says Huyler, who today works as a mediator. "My stomach turned over and I realized at that moment that I was an important cog in that machine, even though I would not face orders to go to Vietnam myself."
Huyler and McMahan had been honorably discharged as conscientious objectors by the time the Connie Stay Home campaign began; more than 30 years later, both still are active in the antiwar movement. They hope "Sir! No Sir!" - which is scheduled for wider theatrical release in April and a nationwide television broadcast this summer - will be seen by troops currently serving in Iraq.
"I think it would make them know that there were a lot ... of brave people who were doing what they thought was the right thing at the time," McMahan says. "A lot of us there were good citizens, and good soldiers, and I ... don't think they would look at it as some hippies who were sticking flowers in the barrels of rifles. They'd say these were brave guys, and they were in battle like we are, and something turned their heads around."