While history has shed much light on the civilian grass roots protests of the Vietnam War, it has obscured what was arguably the most important anti-war movement that emerged in the late '60s.
Organized opposition to the Vietnam War within U.S. military ranks was the single greatest force that moved this country toward ending its involvement in the conflict, according to a new film Sir! No Sir!, to be screened at the New Jersey Film Festival April 7 to 9. However, stories of American GIs returning from combat in Vietnam, getting spat on by anti-war protesters and called "baby killers," have dominated in some accounts. Not only did the anti-war movement flourish within the military, but soldiers who opposed the war were often allied with civilian anti-war protestors, who also aided their efforts.
The movement grew out of Army stockades, Navy Brigs and base towns into elite military colleges like West Point, but the rebellion of thousands of U.S. soldiers has disappeared from the American consciousness, even as our soldiers are once again occupying countries around the world.
One of those civilian organizers, producer-director David Zeiger, aims to uncover the stories of the men and women who led the movement with Sir! No Sir! Mr. Zeiger, perhaps best known for his 2002 PBS documentary series Senior Year (2002), is championing the documentary as a way for young people to understand how distortions by the military and the executive branch in the Vietnam era are being applied today, to discredit those who oppose the conduct of the so-called war on terror. He is even working with Iraq Veterans Against the War to distribute DVD copies of the film to current U.S. soldiers.
As a civilian organizer based at the Oleo Strut coffee house in Kileen, Texas, near Fort Hood, Mr. Zeiger says he was deeply involved in the GI movement against the war but wasn't compelled to make this film until recently, and for one reason in particular.
"Iraq," Mr. Zeiger says.
Working in television and films since 1990, Mr. Zeiger says there was not much interest in making such a film until the 2003 military buildup and invasion of the Mid-East nation. "In the '90s this was old news, something I didn't think people were going to be interested in," he says. "I didn't think I'd get any money for it and I knew how much work would be involved in making it. But I was literally dragged into making this film by the so-called war on terror... (the Iraq War) made it absolutely necessary to make this film because the lies about the Vietnam era played a role in allowing this war to happen and are disarming people about how to object to it."
The film includes testimonials by Donald Duncan, a Green Beret member who resigned from the military in 1966, and Howard Levy, a Green Beret medic who refused to train other medics in protest of the war, and served three years in prison as a result. Keith Mather, one of the "Nine for Peace" who refused orders to deploy to Vietnam and took sanctuary in a church in San Francisco and later was court-martialed (and faced the death penalty) as part of the so-called Presidio 27 prison mutiny, is also profiled. Sir! No Sir! also tells of the more common acts of desertion, refusals of combat orders, as well as the practice of "fragging," or the killing, by servicemen, of commanding officers with fragmentation grenades.
Mr. Zeiger's film focuses on the activist efforts of entertainers including Donald Sutherland, Nina Simone, Peter Boyle and Jane Fonda — arguably the most maligned anti-war figure of the Vietnam era. Their F.T.A. (or F—k the Army) campaign, a play on the military's "Fun, Travel, Adventure" recruiting slogan, provided an alternative to traditional U.S.O. shows. "They put their own careers aside to do this traveling show, entertaining the tens of thousands of GIs who were opposed to the war," Mr. Zeiger says.
Ms. Fonda, he says, visited with servicemen at anti-war coffeehouses that popped up around most every major military base in the country, raised money to support underground newspapers that fomented the GI movement, and attended its demonstrations. "I knew (Ms. Fonda) in this context, and this is what has completely been erased from history and these amazing distortions about her that have become gospel since the war ended."
The distortion goes deeper than the perception of Ms. Fonda as a traitor, Mr. Zeiger says, and speaks to the common conflation that opposing military policy is equivalent to undermining forces fighting abroad.
"What was massively objected to by not only the anti-war movement but the GIs themselves was the official policy of the (Pentagon) to target Vietnamese civilians," Mr. Zeiger explains. He says search-and-destroy missions and the establishment of free-fire zones resulted in the deaths of thousands of children in-country, and gave rise to the infamous chant, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"
He says this opposition was singularly directed toward the military and the Johnson administration, not the soldiers on the ground. "It's fascinating how, in the hands of the far right in this country, the reality was very effectively turned into people accusing GIs of being baby killers," Mr. Zeiger says. "The political ramifications of that are if, today, you accuse the American military of targeting civilians, ipso facto, you are accusing foot soldiers of being baby killers, and are condemning the troops. That very bizarre straight line was created by rewriting what happened in Vietnam and this is being used very effectively to silence opposition to the Iraq War."