This documentary is strong stuff with a powerful evocation of a past with strong implications about the present.
SIR! NO SIR!
(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)
CAPSULE: David Zeigler's documentary tells the story of how the Vietnam War bred a protest movement within the lower ranks of the military itself and how the military tried to suppress that movement. Eyewitness testimony recreates the extremes of the war, the GI protest activity, and the commanders' attempts to subdue and hide the protests. This is a film about the past and about the present. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
With the Vietnam War the United States military was faced with a kind of enemy and war that it had not much faced in the past. The North Vietnamese military was only a second-class force facing the most powerful military in the world, so there were initially high expectations of an easy victory. But at the same time the United States was facing a stubborn and widespread insurrection, a war in which the greatest enemy was very hard to distinguish from non-combatants. Much of this invisible force did not fight honorably by battlefield rules. Faced with a conflict that they had not been adequately trained for and for which they had no clear strategy, the United States military fought the war in the way they thought was most effective. They fought in ways that were frequently barbaric and which they did not want publicized. This soon bred a strong resistance movement within the lower ranks of the military itself, something that was very unusual in US history. Again the commanders were in unfamiliar territory and frequently used force to try to overcome the political expression that the troops felt was their constitutional right. David Zeigler's SIR! NO SIR! is a documentary covering US abuses in waging the war, the GI anti-war movement, and the military's reaction to a wide-spread resistance activity among its own troops. Parallels to the Iraqi conflict are inevitable, but also intentional.
The bulk of SIR! NO SIR! is eyewitness accounts by participants in the GI anti-war movement. Over a dozen protesters tell their stories of the abuses from torture and murder of civilians to bombing and massacring villages. There are accounts of GIs with head and neck injuries paralyzed for life and asking their doctors to kill them. Once the case is put forward for the brutality of the military policy the film tells of the anti-war movement and of how the military attempted to suppress it.
The soldiers and others who resisted tell their stories of their protests and of how the military punished them. We hear of trainers court-marshaled for refusing to teach others to fight the war. A Navy nurse tells of dropping anti-war leaflets over military bases. The story of the Tyrell's Boycott is particularly amusing. Tyrell's was jewelry store chain that positioned itself near military bases. They were very open in their policy of selling GIs jewelry to send to their families as something to remember them by if they are killed in action. And as a special bonus, debt on the jewelry was cancelled if and when the purchaser was killed. The ghoulish store kept their "honor roll" of customers killed in the fighting and absolved of their debt. Somehow the soldiers were not especially grateful for this magnanimity. Other topics include the anti-war coffeehouses, gathering places of protesters. We hear about the mimeographed amateur protest magazines spread in secret around the military bases. There is also discussion of fragging--intentional killing--of commanders. During the war there were over half a million incidents of desertion. This massive resistance was a phenomenon entirely new to the American military.
With each form of protest, the film also covers how the military tried to suppress it. Protesters were threatened with decades of imprisonment and frequently were sentenced to years in prison. There was an account of the over-crowded Presidio Stockade. The military's measures, while they seem bad in this context, are probably minimal compared to what most militaries would do to repress revolt. For the most part the military seemed to want to keep a lid on the situation so they would not be discredited in front of the American people.
While most of the protesters who speak are actual veterans, they also include Jane Fonda. She tells briefly of her actions at that time and her experiences with the traveling FTA anti-war show she organized with Donald Sutherland. The documentary gets added dignity by some minimal narration done by Edward Asner (admittedly a personal hero of my own).
Some of the accounts of military brutality, while verbal, are explicit and some viewers may find them disturbing. It should also be remembered that with this as with most political documentaries, the opposition does not get an opportunity to refute the case made.
This documentary is strong stuff with a powerful evocation of a past with strong implications about the present. I rate SIR! NO SIR! a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10