“Soldier Boy,” the ’60s pop classic by The Shirelles, introduces the new political documentary Sir! No Sir! It’s an unexpected bit of sweetness for this Michael Moore-led era of editorializing documentaries. The song is intended to turn the emotions and sacrifices of enlisted men and their loved ones into irony—a condescending ploy that’s part of a sneaky propaganda tactic. It traces the war resisters movement of the Vietnam era, but its interest is contemporary: angled to influence opinion about the current Iraq war. Trouble is, the great poignancy of that Shirelles tune is overwhelming due to the truth it contains about personal politics.
Had Sir! No Sir! been made at any other time following the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, it might have completed the picture Americans have about ’60s turmoil and the diverse responses shown to military service—the protests, the marches, the call for a moratorium and “Soldier Boy” itself.
That record went to the top of the pop charts in 1962 (and was number three on the r&b charts). No film about American military conscription can give a full or honest portrait without dealing with the phenomenon of “Soldier Boy.”
Sir! No Sir! focuses on veterans whose disagreement with American foreign policy and the viciousness of war moved them to resign their commissions. Former Green Beret Donald Duncan explains, “I was doing it right but I wasn’t doing right.”
Another unfortunate son declares, “I was certain every member of my family had their war and there would be a war for me, and we’d go off and be a hero and go out and fight the good fight for this country”—until he began to view the war as unjust.
Director David Zeiger surveys the culture of dissent that grew out of this disillusionment: pirate radio stations that countered Armed Forces Radio; underground newspapers (that long-gone phenomenon) written by and for soldiers; radical chic publications like Ramparts that featured Duncan as a cover star under the headline “I Quit;” and the traveling show of subversive entertainers including Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, politely called Free The Army (the acronym also had more colorful meanings).
This would be an inspiring story, except that it is not fully told. Zeiger leaves out the suspect side of subversive politics—the communist influence that seduced fervent students during that time. This is as disingenuous as George Clooney’s denial of communism in Good Night and Good Luck. Zeiger emphasizes the sentimentality of that generation of young Americans who became outraged when faced with the true nature of politics and war—the generation shocked out of its pampered naivete.
Describing how the U.S.-trained Vietnamese Army (ARVN) “used the old-fashioned methods of interrogation—force, torture,” Duncan makes a sorrowful confession: “I’ll tell you, as bad as that treatment was, the cynicism that attached to it was the part that was really sickening.”
Unfortunately, Zeiger doesn’t explore that cynicism. Instead, Sir! No Sir! becomes part of that cynicism’s contemporary legacy in which the horrors of war are imputed to the character of the U.S. government and currently are used to argue any act of U.S. military aggression.
This implies that those soldiers who became ’60s conscientious objectors (another obsolete term) shared the same principles as Iraq War protestors. But the nobility of protest—that all-American will to refuse—stands in contrast to the faithfulness encoded in “Soldier Boy.”
The politics of “Soldier Boy” are akin to the patriotism heard in contemporary country music, but it expresses a deeper, uncomplicated national feeling. Just as Zeiger documents an era when there were draftees and better-educated enlistees, “Soldier Boy” documents an era when the military was a good option for young folk—providing a common domestic rite of passage.
The Shirelles’ faithfulness came from the many farewells military families experienced—a reality today’s news media only understands as a death sentence. As The Shirelles’ romanticized separation (from brothers, fathers, husbands, boyfriends), they discreetly articulated the global privilege afforded by military service:
Wherever you go
My heart will follow
Take my love with you
To any port or foreign shore
Darling you must feel for sure
I’ll be true to you
These sentiments made “Soldier Boy” an authentic national anthem. Within its statement of loving is a simple awareness of American expansion and a concession to the far-reaching stretch of patriotic duty. The Shirelles’ mellifluousness was as compelling as Jane Fonda’s impassioned remarks about soldiers’ “youth, innocence and vulnerability.”
Zeiger’s film is somewhat redeemed from the full stench of an anti-American subversive tract simply because he remembers “Soldier Boy.” It recalls some innocent part of the American subconscious unsullied by political rage.
Sir! No Sir! urges mutiny and the collapse of American military protection—an unconscionable scheme after 9/11—but the resurrection of “Solider Boy” also makes it sympathetic to the hearts and souls of those who pay the cost.