Every American of a certain age remembers the Sixties as a time when long-haired anti-war protestors swarmed the streets, waving protest placards and flashing the peace sign. Hardly any American outside the military is aware that there was a massive and growing anti-war movement inside the military — complete with long-haired anti-war soldiers marching in the streets, waving protest placards and flashing the peace sign.
Filmmaker David Zeiger is one of the few Americans who was aware of the astounding breadth and depth of the anti-war revolution that raged through the heart of the military itself as an unwinnable war became increasingly unpopular.
Soldiers got stoned, sat down, wrote petitions, refused orders, went AWOL and attacked their officers.
Why isn't any of this remembered? As the Times of London observed: "Through demos, underground papers, combat refusals and so on, these GIs rocked America to its core… Yet today, the memory of the GI movement has been buried."
Sir! No Sir! offers a stunning explanation. According to Zeiger, this mass-amnesia is all the result of a single, well-placed anecdote: the story of the returning vets who arrived at San Francisco International only to be spat upon by anti-war protestors screaming "Baby killers!" The odd thing is: that story is a hoax.
Sir! No Sir! Interviews Vietnam vet and sociology professor Jerry Lembcke, the author of The Spitting Image. This heavily researched box revealed that there is no evidence that any such event ever took place. Soldiers didn't even return to the US via SF International. They arrived at US bases and, needless to say, there were never any angry hippies on hand to greet them.
This potent hoax accomplished two extraordinary things: it recast non-violent peace protesters and contemptible villains and it turned American soldiers into victims. Whenever an American ran into someone who had served in 'Nam, the first thing they were likely to say was, "I'm so sorry about the way you were treated with disrespect when you returned."
The real story about soldiers and Vietnam vets, Lembcke points out, can still be seen on the front pages of newspapers from that era: "They're in the streets. They're political activists. They're on the Capital Lawn. They're giving the Nixon Administration fits."
Were it not for the masterful deployment of that powerful "meme," American civilians might have been asking the veterans a different set of questions: "What did you really think about the war?" "Did you ever refuse an order?" "Is it true that soldiers 'fragged' their officers?"
Similarly, people remember Jane Fonda not as an award-winning actress and outspoken political activist but as "Hanoi Jane," a "traitor" to the US, photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun with grinning North Vietnamese soldiers. Sir! No Sir! takes a broader look at Fonda's activism during America's dark downward spiral through a misbegotten and murderous war.
The filmmakers unearth old clips of Fonda's FTA Tour, designed as an antidote to Bob Hope's pro-war tours. (Fonda and the others would insist that the initials meant "Free the Army," but everyone understood the real message was "F--- the Army.") Although it's hard to believe, the war in Vietnam eventually became so unpopular within the service that Hope and his Hollywood startlets were greeted with boos when they appeared too supportive of Washington's military agenda in Asia. Fonda, along with fellow actor Donald Sutherland and a crew of activist actors and musicians decided to do something unprecedented — they booked planes to the war zone and took to the stage with an anti-war, pro-soldier cabaret show.
Despite being banned from military bases, the shows were wildly popular. More than 60,000 soldiers managed to sneak away and attend the shows. The video clips are astonishing. They show hundreds of soldiers packed shoulder to shoulder, watching raptly, laughing uproariously and the parodies of Nixon, cheering the political messages, staring wistfully as singers reached out to them emotionally through soulful ballads.
And, time after time, soldiers would clamber onstage to join the performers and to read proclamations and personal statements against the war and issue demands to honor the rights of soldiers.
Jane Fonda is one of those interviewed for the film and it's clear that she is stil firm in her conviction that she acted honestly as a citizen and a patriot. (And here a question arises: Where is John Kerry? He is nowhere to be seen in this film.)
A trove of previously unseen film footage shows hundreds of soldiers marching outside military bases, dancing to rock music and screaming defiance. Soldiers are interviewed while fraternizing with peaceniks inside some of the hundreds of anti-war coffee houses — like the Oleo Strut in Killeen, Texas — that sprang up around US military bases.
It's a parallel universe forgotten by history. Or, more correctly, expertly masked and buried by the masters of disinformation. And no single individual carries more guilt for this cynical, well-orchestrated historical theft than Sylvester Stallone and the screenwriter who penned Stallone's angry, but fictitious, soliloquy for the movie, Rambo: "I fought in Vietnam and I come back to this country and people spit in my face and call me 'Baby Killer!' Who are they to judge me?!"
"The irony of that charge never fails to strike me," says director Zeiger, "since whenever atrocities are exposed that are a direct outgrowth of US government policy — from My Lai to Abu Graib — it is the government, not those opposed to these wars, that lays the blame on the soldiers who carried out their orders."
Resistance at Home
The sign over the gate to the Fort Dix Military Stockade is clearly visible in the archival black-and-white film footage. It reads: "Obedience to the Law is Freedom." The Fort Dix stockade had its West Cosat equivalent at San Francsico's Presidio. The Presidio was one of the places inside the US where pacifists and resisters were jailed. One day, a 19-year-old soldier tried to escape from the facility and he was shot dead by military guards. The other inmates rioted.
"We ripped out the wiring and the plumbing," a former soldier jailed in the stockade tells the filmmakers. "We just tore that jail apart. And then we started to plan." They sat down and started a fast. They became known as the Presidio 27 and they became a media sensation. New of the "Presidio Mutiny" spread across the country and around the world.
One of those young men, now in his sixties, recalled how "I was scared. We found ourselves facing the death penalty for singing 'We Shall Overcome.'" Keith Mather, a member of "Nine for Peace" who sought sanctuary in a San Francisco Church. Mather later became the only soldier to successfully escape from the Presido Stockade: he made his way to Canada and was granted political asylum.
Navy Nurse Susan Schnall who saw news reports of US planes dropping leaflets over Vietnam encouraging villagers to turn in members of the Viet Cong insurgency. She hired a plane, printed up her own leaflets denouncing the war and started dropping them over military bases. "Our fear was that we would be shot down." Fortunately that never happened. The leaflets rained down "with surprising accuracy" and Schnall was arrested and packed off to prison.
The brothers in the service developed elaborate handshakes. When two African Americans met for the first time, one soldier explains, they could tell which city and neighborhood they came from just by the nature of the hand-jive. Military officials disproved of this activity and many men were jailed simply for being caught giving these handshakes.
Thousands of uniformed dissidents and resisters were jailed at the sprawling Long Binh prison in Vietnam — popularly known among the inmates as the "LBJ" jail, a reference to their despised commander-in-chief, Lyndon Baines Johnson. As one inmate recalls: "It was like any jail in the US; the inmates were 90 percent black." There came a day when the prisoners rose up and rioted. They burned the LBJ prison to the ground.
Other soldiers, regardless of color, were court-martialed for giving "political speeches" while in uniform — an injustice since, as the soldiers pointed out, they could see their generals and admirals giving political speeches before Congress every day.
Sir! No Sir! tracks down a number of servicemen and women who took a principled stand against the war and paid the price. The interviews include: Don Duncan, the US Special Forces Marine whose cover story on Ramparts Magazine (titled simply "I Quit") rocked the nation. the first West Point officer ever to refuse to serve in a war; Howard Levy, an army doctor who refused to become a pawn in an illegal war; Louis Font, a Harvard-educated West Point grad who sacrificed a promising political career by refusing to take part in an illegal war.
There were eventually more than 200 "illegal" underground GI newspapers being surrepticiously mimeographed and circulated at US bases around the world. Even more surprising, there were pirate radios operated by dissident Gis broadcasting from inside the war zones. One of the most notorious was "Radio First Timer." The filmmakers located tapes of these broadcasts and, for the first time, they can be heard inside America's borders.
In Vietnam, soldiers threw away their dog tags and began wearing handmade peace symbols. Some soldiers beat their dog tags into peace symbols. Back in Washington, veterans tossed their war medals over the White House fence. It was a full-blown, all-American "mutiny of conscience." According to the Pentagon's own figures, there were more than 503,000 "incidents of desertion."
Vietnam was a revelation for many recruits. One black veteran, interviewed years later, tells the filmmakers how quickly they were trained to refer to the Vietnamese as "gooks." And then one day, "it dawned on me: 'Gook' meant the same thing as 'nigger.'"
Terry Whitmore, an African-American who was hospitalized after being wounded in Vietnam recalls being ordered to return to Vietnam. He also recalls watching news reports following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. "Dudes were running down the streets wearing the same kind of uniform that I got. They're in Memphis. They're beating up on people." Suddenly he was seeing black Americans and the Vietnamese through the same lens.
When soldiers were told that they were being dispatched to Chicago to keep war protestors away from the Republican Convention, many refused to go. "We came home from fighting the Viet Cong and now they wanted us to go and fight Americans!" American soldiers were beaten for refusing orders to go to Chicago to suppress dissent.
One vet remembers the day when a stir went up while fellow soldiers were standing outside in a long chow line. A news story had just broken about a place called "My Lai." US troops had massacred 500 villagers, including women, children and babies. Adding to the horror was the news that the Pentagon had managed to cover up the story for more than a year.
There are chilling clips from hearings held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, where soldiers confess to participation in the torture, rape and murder of Vietnamese civilians. VVAW's Joe Bangert shudders as he recalls "this terrible slaughter, this terrible insane slaughter." One veteran remembers how the Dow Chemical corporation "reconfigured" napalm so that the gasoline-soaked jelly would stick more firmly to Vietnamese skin.
In an attempt to deflect criticism from a war that was sending too many American soldiers home in "body bags," President Nixon announced a new strategy of "Vietnamization" — henceforth, Vietnamese soldiers would do the fighting on the ground while the US would concentrate on massive aerial assualts, using B-52s to "carpet bomb" farms and forests.
Sir! No Sir! locates members of The WORMS, a group of Air Force interpreters trained to listen in on North Vietnamese radio transmissions to assess the damage done by US bombs. Listening to the distant voices, they began to understand the horror the US was raining on schools, hospitals and decent human beings. The Pentagon denied it was bombing hospitals but the WORMS new better.
As one intel officer put it: "The lies were so stark, it challenged your own dignity, it challenged your own loyalty, it challenged your own humanity." They took an oath: "We Openly Resist Military Stupidity" (WORMS). They began to provide bomber pilots with less and less useful intelligence. During the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam, the WORMS went on strike.
The Mutiny of Alpha Company
Journalist Peter Boyle (the last American reporter out of Cambodia) is interviewed about the time he spent with Alpha Company, a group of post--Vietnamization soldiers still assigned to combat missions on the ground. When the young men realize they are being condemned to die in "suicide missions" they sit down, write a petition, and refuse to fight. When word reached the Oval Office, Nixon was so shaken by the example of a group of soldiers refusing to fight that he ordered Alpha Company to be pulled out.
They were replaced by Bravo Company — which also refused to go out on maneuvers. Eventually that entire forward base was abandoned.
Morale plunged and disaffection rose to such angry levels that commanding officers feared they might be killed at the hands of their own men. Officers were shot in the back in the field. Others were killed in their tents, the victims of "fragging" incidents when fragmentation grenades were tossed under their beds.
Sir! No Sir! Tells the story of Bill Dean Smith, an African-American soldier who was accused of a fragging assault. Friends and family explain that he was an innocent man who was targeted because he was "an outspoken critic of the war." A lengthy trial determined that the evidence against Smith was faked and he was freed. Sadly, he never recovered from the emotional trauma of spending 22 months in solitary confinement. He became one of many homeless vets on America's streets. He eventually ran afoul of the law and died in prison.
In San Diego, 1,200 sailors on the USS Constellation signed a petition asking that the ship remain in its homeport and not return to Vietnam. Sailors organized a city-wide poll on whether the ship should "Go or Stay." The residents of this traditionally conservative "Navy Town" sided with the dissident sailors, voting 6-to-1 for keeping the ship tied to the dock.
Zeiger initially wanted to make this film in the early 90s but faced the fact that the country was "Vietnamed out." No one was interested in a film about a grassroots rebellion inside the US military. "That, of course, changed on September 11, 2001," Zeiger says. "In short order, our government had invaded and occupied two countries. And suddenly, the story of American soldiers defying and ultimately ending a questionable (at best) war, opposed by millions of their country men and women, became very relevant."
A reviewer for the Pasadena Weekly, explained why Sir! No Sir! deserves to become America's most-watched film: "David Zeiger's documentary might be the most important documentary to screen in Los Angeles this year. Knowledge is ammunition."