Reliving the battles against Vietnam: Zeiger documentary shows U.S. not as divided as thought
Katherine Monk, The Ottawa Citizen (found via Lexis Nexis)
The protest movement has seen better days. It has also seen much worse, which makes for a sadly ironic truism: Peace breeds ambivalence.
This explains why in the 20 years following the end of the Vietnam War, very little was said or chronicled in the mainstream media about the forces that helped put an end to the conflict.
Despite such big-name dramas as Born on the Fourth of July, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, which all depicted varying degrees of ground-soldier rebellion, the real history of the armed forces' role in ending the war has been largely overlooked.
In David Zeiger's Sir! No Sir!, a great deal of lost and unappreciated history about the Vietnam GI movement is finally recorded.
Filling in the gaps between the birth of the protest movement within the ranks of the armed forces and the fall of Saigon, Zeiger examines some of the long-held myths about the makeup of both sides of the debate.
Asserting that the United States was not as divided politically then as it is now, Zeiger's film shows how soldiers and hippie protesters were very much on the same page rather than sworn enemies.
Zeiger interviews special forces veterans, GIs and an array of fighting men and women who were called on to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and did so readily until they began to question the justification for their mission.
Then-president Richard Nixon didn't move to an air war in the latter stages of the conflict to save American lives. Zeiger's film suggests Nixon's tactics were the result of mass mutiny: He knew the soldiers wouldn't fight a ground war, so he was left with only one option -- incinerate from above.
Using testimonials from West Pointers to grunts, Zeiger reorients our understanding of how the protest movement grew through an off-base speakeasy circuit and close to 200 soldier-run alternative newspapers.
The movement was so large, the Pentagon's own number of mutinous incidents and desertions within the forces numbered well over a half-million between 1966 and 1971.
As massive as this movement was within the military, it's a common misconception that soldiers and protesters were on opposite sides of the crowd-control barricades. In fact, the whole notion of protesters spitting on soldiers upon their return is an image that continues to inflame the far right even today.
But Zeiger asserts that even in the fieriest days of the anti-Vietnam protest movement, GIs were not targeted as evil -- government apparatchiks were -- and he does a pretty good job proving it, thanks to archival footage showing brass-laden soldiers breaking ranks and hardcore protesters embracing and supporting the boys on the ground in Vietnam.
Although we've often seen pictures of Bob Hope doing USO shows in Indochina, few have seen Jane Fonda and company's performances, which took place off base and generally attracted 10 times the number of uniformed people.
Zeiger goes to great lengths to not only collect compelling archival footage and sound bytes, but to base the whole documentary on fact. This makes the movie a little wordy and dry, but clearly Zeiger knew people wouldn't believe the history without firsthand testimony.
A perfect example of the postwar whitewash can be seen in the story of a protester allegedly spitting on a returning GI. According to the story, a poor grunt had just landed at San Francisco Airport, and waiting for him on the tarmac was a female hippie with peace beads and a placard who spat on him as he walked by.
Zeiger and his subjects walk through the story step by step and point out the improbabilities as they arise: First, women do not spit. Second, no GIs landed at San Francisco Airport; they arrived at the base airfield outside the city. Third, no civilians would be allowed on a military tarmac, and fourth -- and most important -- the protesters never blamed the GIs.
If all that's true, then how did we end up with such a distorted image of the protest movement? How did brave, well-intentioned and righteous people who spoke up, and broke ranks, for what they believed in become perceived as dirty, disrespectful hippie trash?
It's a great question, and one Sir! No Sir! has an articulate response to as it excavates the battlefields abroad and at home.