Who was actually spat upon? That’s the question raised by Jerry Lembcke. He served in Vietnam and authored the book The Spitting Image, raising doubts of an often-cited incident, usually entailing a soldier returning home from Vietnam, arriving at the San Francisco Airport only to be spat upon by a hippie chick on the tarmac. Lembcke punctures holes in this elusive urban myth – military personal wouldn’t have arrived in a civilian airport, for one – and his investigation hasn’t uncovered an actual occurrence.
This is one of many provocative and informative chapters crammed in director David Zeiger’s account of and tribute to the anti-war movement within the military. Its purpose is loud and clear: to prevent the rewriting of history. Instead of debate or a rehashing of the reasons for the war, one woman and over a dozen men who had served in Vietnam discuss their personal experiences for opposing the war. The documentary more than succeeds in getting its point across. Echoing a sentiment that grew during the Nixon administration, naval officer Ron McMahan felt the only way to stop the war was to stop fighting it. And according to the film, the Pentagon at one point counted 550,000 incidents of desertion among military personnel.
One episode has enough material and issues to be its own film: an African-American draftee, Billy Dean Smith, was tried by a military court for “fragging,” the killing or maiming of an officer. (Fragmentation grenades were often used, hence the name.) After serving 22 months in solitary confinement, he was cleared of all charges; over 30 years later, he was living on the streets of LA and is now in prison.
Even conservative military towns became hot beds of activism. (In one off-base coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, a poster of Malcolm X hangs alongside Marilyn Monroe.) A highlight of this time capsule are clips from the “F*** the Army” tour, starring Donald Sutherland and, most notably, Jane Fonda, a counterweight to the more traditional Bob Hope USO tours. Sir! No Sir! is a reminder of Fonda’s star power, past and present. She stands out not simply because she’s one of the few women interviewed; her charisma and zeal haven’t mellowed a bit. She’s a natural-born activist. (Her son, Troy Garity, narrates.)
The 1972 documentary Winter Soldier (New Yorker home video, to be released in May) focuses on the testimony of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War hearings, which is briefly touched upon here. Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry (2004, Non-Fiction Films) specifically recounts Vietnam veteran John Kerry’s role in the ‘71 VVAW demonstrations in Washington, where veterans, including Kerry, returned their medals as a symbol of protest. Sir! No Sir! doesn’t mention Kerry. Nor does it directly refer to the war in Iraq, and is more thought provoking because of that. But needless to say, this film could have helped to add texture to Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign.