"Sir! No Sir!" is the definitive documentary on the GI antiwar movement of the Vietnam era. Drawing upon archival film, still photos and interviews with the key activists, director David Zeiger has made a film that illuminates the past as it helps us to think about political possibilities today as the USA is bogged down in another big muddy.
Zeiger, who is now 55 and who began making films in the early 90s, had exactly the qualifications to make such a documentary, since he was one of the organizers of The Oleo Strut, a coffeehouse in Kileen, Texas that attracted GI's from nearby Fort Hood during the period 1968 to 1972. All around the country such coffeehouses allowed servicemen and women to listen to poetry, folk music and read leftwing and antiwar literature. In other words, they were acting exactly like their peers on campus.
Well-known figures of the movement now in their sixties describe what motivated them to stick their neck out. Dr. Howard Levy, a dermatologist who spent 3 years in prison for refusing to train people in Vietnam, says that he thought that the training would be used to curry favor with peasants when some minor skin disease was cleared up. But when compared to the impact of napalm bombing on their villages, he felt that such public relations would violate the oath he took as a physician.
Navy Lieutenant Sue Schall, a nurse, decided to march in uniform at a peace demonstration in San Francisco on November, 1968. In the days leading up to the demonstration, she dropped leaflets from a small plane over military bases in the Bay Area promoting the demonstration. When the brass told Schnall that marching in uniform was not permitted, she responded that if General William Westmoreland could speak at prowar rallies in uniform, then she should have the same rights. Such defiance grew out of a deep conviction in the peace and radical movements of the time that American society had to live up to the democratic ideals that supposedly were being defended in Indochina.
Zeiger also interviews some relatively unknown figures that most of us, including someone like myself who was very much involved with the antiwar movement, would ostensibly be finding out about for the first time. He is to be commended for allowing them to tell their stories as well.
One of them is Terry Whitmore, a Black Marine who received a medal from Lyndon Johnson when he was recuperating in a hospital from severe wounds suffered in Vietnam. Weeks later, when he was scheduled to be shipped out once again to Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. When Whitmore saw American soldiers clubbing or firing on Black people, he made the connection between racism at home and abroad. As Mohammed Ali would put it, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger." (The film shows a sign painted by the NLF urging Black soldiers to avoid combat.) Whitmore decided to desert to Sweden.
But the most fascinating revelation in Zeiger's film comes out of interviews with the men who were involved with WORMS (We Openly Resist Military Stupidity), a group of Air Force interpreters whose job it was to fly over North Vietnam intercepting radio communications. During the Christmas 1972 bombing of North Vietnam, many of them went on strike. What is interesting about this is that although these men did not face the same degree of danger as the foot soldier, they still took action. The same mood of resistance from relatively safe quarters was reflected on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea, where 1200 sailors signed a petition against the war.
The film had special resonances for me as a former member of the Socialist Workers Party. PFC Howard Petrick, one of the early antiwar GI's, came from our ranks. He was threatened with a stiff prison sentence for speaking against the war in 1967. After the party mounted a powerful defense campaign, he received a dishonorable discharge about a year later. After party members Joe Cole and Joe Miles (an African-American) were drafted, they found themselves at Fort Jackson where they launched something called GI's United Against the War. They had "rap sessions" in the barracks where antiwar literature and the speeches of Malcolm X were discussed. Eventually they were thrown in the stockade, but released after the SWP mounted an effective defense campaign. One of the GI's who was drawn to their meetings was Andrew Pulley, an African-American who was given the choice of going into the army or prison when he was 17. Pulley eventually joined the SWP and became a key leader, running as the Vice Presidential candidate in 1972.
Except for Marxist groups like the SWP, the CP and the WWP (all of whom had members or supporters in the military at one point or another victimized for their antiwar stance), the radical movement did not exactly have the perspective of winning the GI's to an antiwar perspective at the outset. From 1965 to 1967, there was a widespread belief--especially in SDS--that soldiers were vicious killers who could not be reached. This led to moralistic posturing that would alienate GI's from the movement.
Based on the experience of the Russian Revolution, the SWP always had the perspective that the army was subject to the same class differentiations that existed in society as a whole. The men and women at the lower levels, especially the draftees, tended to reflect the working class while the officers, especially from the rank of Captain and above, tended to reflect the interests of the ruling class.
Nobody understood these issues better than Fred Halstead, the SWP'er who led our antiwar work. As a young sailor stationed in East Asia in 1945, Halstead participated in the "Bring us home" movement. This consisted of enlisted men who demanded to be sent back home rather than be used as cannon fodder in the Chinese civil war that was taking shape at the time. Many of the leaders of this movement had been veterans of the CIO organizing drives, including Emil Mazey. Freedom Road Magazine of Summer 2003 reports:
"A 156 man Soldier's Committee was elected in Manila to speak for 139,000 soldiers there, "all interested in going home." It issued leaflets which declared, "The State Department wants the army to back up its imperialism." The Soldier's Committee elected an eight man central committee which included Emil Mazey, who had been an auto union local president and played a leading role in the battle to unionize auto in the late '30s."
Just as occurred during Vietnam, a new GI antiwar movement has emerged. At the 2006 Leftforum Conference in NYC, there was a panel discussion on "A Soldier's Movement Against the Iraq War: Prospects and Challenges" It was chaired by Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, a group that has been involved with such issues since the Vietnam era. Speakers included José Vásquez, an Army Reserve conscientious objector.
Also very much worth mentioning is the March 14-19 “Walkin’ To New Orleans” action that combines concerns about racism at home and the war in Iraq, just as Terry Whitmore made connections between Memphis and Vietnam in the 1960s.. You can read about it on Stan Goff's "Feral Scholar" website: http://stangoff.com/?p=258. Goff, like Green Beret veteran Donald Duncan who was featured in Zeiger's film, was a highly trained Special Forces soldier who turned against his profession during a tour of duty in Haiti.
What exists today that did not exist in during Vietnam is the phenomenon of military families speaking out against the war. For millions of Americans, this has become personalized in the figure of Cindy Sheehan but she is not alone. Groups such as Military Families Speak Out in the USA and Military Families Against the War in Great Britain are growing proof of the same kind of disaffection that undermined the war in Vietnam. When a group that has traditionally flew the flag or put yellow ribbons on the front lawn begins to speak out against the war, the warmongers have a tough job maintaining the status quo.
Finally, there is a kind of demonstration that will have an impact on the shape the outcome of the current war even if it does not come wrapped in conventional antiwar garbs. I speak of the recent Zogby poll in Iraq taken among the troops themselves. It found that 29% of the respondents said the U.S. should leave Iraq “immediately,” while another 22% said they should leave in the next six months. Another 21% said troops should be out between six and 12 months, while 23% said they should stay “as long as they are needed.” So in other words, only a little more than 1 in 5 soldiers agree with the White House's perspective. Although it would be obviously difficult to prove such a thing, favoring withdrawal in such a poll might amount to a surreptitious version of wearing a peace sign. With the mounting disillusionment in the war in Iraq in society as a whole, the day of making such signs visible might not be far off.
"Sir! No Sir!" opens in NYC at the IFC Center on April 19, at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco on April 7 and at Los Angeles's Laemmle's Monica 4 theater on May 5. Unfortunately, the IFC Center in NYC has fired its unionized projectionists so I would urge people to think long and hard about whether they should patronize this theater or not. It is really too bad that the IFC tends to feature films that are of interest to the left under these circumstances.