"I had the ability and the tools to play the system, and to make louder statements. If the federal courts had ruled against me, I would have wound up in Leavenworth.”
So says Ron McMahan, 59-year-old CU grad, Vietnam veteran and war resister, Boulder resident and current Chairman of Global Energy Decisions. He is one of the thousands of American soldiers who disobeyed orders and worked for peace even as the Vietnam War raged on. His little-known story, and that of dozens of others, is documented in the new film “Sir! No Sir!”, which will be screened courtesy of CU's International Film Series Saturday night.
The movie is the brainchild of 55-year-old documentary filmmaker David Zeiger, who was active in the anti-war movement of the time, and returned to the subject nearly four decades later. Utilizing dozens of interviews and rarely seen archival footage, Zeiger recreates a period to date largely lost to history - an anti-war movement that germinated from the heart of the war machine itself.
Writes Zeiger, “Between 1966 and 1975, groups of soldiers - some small and some numbering in the thousands - emerged to challenge the war and racism in the military. Group action and individual defiance, from the 500,000 GIs who deserted over the course of the war to the untold numbers who wore peace signs, defied military discipline and avoided combat, created a ‘Fuck the Army' counter-culture that threatened the entire military culture of the time and changed the course of the war.”
Of the many active in the impromptu movement who were interviewed for the film, two are from Boulder. McMahan, a Navy veteran who spent his tour of duty navigating river boats that traveled far “in country,” sought release as a conscientious objector while enlisted - an act that inspired official retaliation and a successfully defended lawsuit, Laird (Melvin Laird, Richard Nixon's Secretary of Defense) v. McMahan, that served as a precedent for countless others who escaped a conflict to which they could not spiritually commit their efforts.
“A lot of personal things happened while you were there,” says McMahan of his eye-opening combat experience. “A lot of people like myself, like a lot of guys do now, believed in doing it for God and country. After 30 to 40 days in combat, we discovered that a lot of those myths weren't true.”
Protests took many forms - from the more innocuous keeping of journals, frank discussion with fellow soldiers, and the signing of petitions; to participations in demonstrations and the publication of underground newspapers on military bases; to open acts of resistance, sabotage, and prison riots.
Facilitator and mediator John Hurley also participated in the filming. The 60-year-old Boulderite was a Navy pilot whose disgust at his participation in the indiscriminately lethal air war that dominated the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict led to his conversion to Quakerism and his claiming of conscientious-objector status.
“There were too many bodies coming home,” he says with quiet and deliberate precision.
Both Hurley and McMahan were involved in the rebellion surrounding the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Constellation in November of 1972, when an at-sea sit-in forced the vessel back to its dock in San Diego. A protest vote by the soldiers and citizenry opposed the ship's continued deployment.
“We were set up like Girl Scout cookies,” says McMahan of the improvised polling stations.
Both men agree that, in today's martial atmosphere, it's difficult to find places to screen the film.
“Not only did the networks turn us down, but cable and even PBS won't touch it,” says McMahan.
“It seems to be easier to find an audience for this film in other countries,” says Hurley.
The parallels between that war and the current Iraq conflict, though never spoken of in the film, are inevitable. Is it deemed to dangerous to allow the public to see, and become empowered by, what might well be a primer on civil disobedience by members of the military?
Hurley says, “I hope the film can put in perspective the history of resistance to war that has not been well-documented yet, and that that perspective will help people to be thoughtful about our current foreign policy.”
Says McMahan ruefully, “The last thing the powers that be want GIs to realize is that they are citizens as well.”