Did you know that there was an antiwar movement within the U.S. military during the Vietnam war? It started with individual acts in 1965-66, escalating until it affected the whole military by 1973. At the time, the U.S. news media reported on this movement of GI desertions, GI antiwar newspapers and coffeehouses, about GIs refusing to ship out and GIs appearing at or organizing antiwar demonstrations. This widespread opposition to the Vietnam war by active duty GIs seems little known or remembered today. Why?
One reason is of the 190 or so fiction and non-fiction films made in Hollywood and elsewhere portraying the Vietnam war, not one U.S. film mentions this aspect of the war and its contribution to the defeat of the U.S. in Vietnam. That is until now.
For one week in mid April in New York City there was a showing of "Sir! No Sir!," a new film by David Zeiger. The filmmaker combines archival film footage and current interviews with participants into a 75 minute documentary of the history and importance of the GI anti-war and anti-military movement.
The U.S. Pentagon acknowledged that there were 503,926 "incidents of desertion" between 1966 and 1971. But desertion was only one means of opposition. Howard Levy, a doctor drafted to teach Special Forces medics rudimentary skin disease treatment procedures, refused to continue working for what he believed was a purposely brutal war. He was court-martialed and served three years.
After a guard shot to death an emotionally disturbed prisoner who was walking away from a work gang at the Army's Presidio stockade, 27 other prisoners staged a sit-down demonstration, singing "We shall Overcome." They were court-martialed for mutiny, a capital offense, and sentenced to long terms of hard labor. But the national outcry over long sentences for singing "We Shall Overcome" forced the military to release them within a year or two. Two marines were sentenced to six and 10 years of hard labor for holding discussions at Camp Pendleton asking whether Black Americans should fight in Vietnam.
But the harsh sentences did not have the effect the military desired. "Sir! No Sir!" begins with early acts like these of more or less individual resistance and goes on to examine how the movement grew and spread.
GI antiwar newspapers began to appear in 1967 at military bases in the U.S. and abroad. Produced by GIs, sometimes with civilian help, these papers expressed the grievances and resistance of the GIs they were written for. Eventually, over 300 such papers appeared, produced by hundreds of GIs, distributed by thousands and read by tens of thousands. Most of the articles and cartoons were anonymous to protect the writers and cartoonists. The papers were conscious of themselves as part of a movement and covered the harassment that each other experienced.
Coffeehouses setup near U.S. bases were popular with GIs. At these coffeehouses, GIs could relax, discuss their situation with each other, read antiwar literature and work on their underground newspaper or on planning antiwar activities. An antiwar entertainment tour was undertaken by Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland and others. Called the FTA (Free or F**K The Army Tour), it was greeted by GIs around the world with warmth and appreciation documented in the film, although I wonder if the cheering shown was always for the clip of the performance that just preceded it.
The civilian antiwar movement took notice and allied itself with the GI antiwar and antimilitary movement. The film documents the growing revulsion of ordinary GIs to the brutality they were ordered to commit. The need for indiscriminate killing of Vietnamese is tied in the film to the need the Pentagon felt for large body counts. In response, more and more soldiers and units refused to go into combat. If pushed enough, some chose to kill their own cruel officers rather than murder Vietnamese people. The U.S. Congress held hearings in 1973 about the "fragging of officers," which the Pentagon was reporting responsible for hundreds of the U.S. deaths in the war.
The film also reminded me of the VVAW organized encampment and march. Six hundred Vietnam veterans filed passed the U.S. Capitol Building on April 24, 1971. Each recited the name or names of buddies who had been killed in Vietnam and flung his battle ribbons, metals or dog tags over the fence and onto the steps of the Capitol. I believe that was the turning point that won over a great majority of the American people to a more active opposition to the war.
"Sir! No Sir!" includes many such scenes and interviews to demonstrate over and over again the growing disgust within the military and the whole American population with the Vietnam war and with the mistreatment and degradation of those sent to fight it. Zeiger included interviews with a group of Air Force intelligence gathers who refused to send back reports of intercepted North Vietnamese messages they monitored during the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Rebellious officers and sailors were also shown or mentioned. The state of the military was attested to by quotes from active duty Marine historian Colonel Robert Heinl who wrote in a 1971 article in the Armed Forces Journal, "By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse."
Zeiger does an important service when he includes near the end of the film an interview with Jerry Lembcke. When he left the service, Lembcke trained as a sociologist. He did extensive research, looking for evidence for a story that began to be heard in the 1980s that returning GIs were spat on by antiwar hippies and others. Lembcke found no contemporaneous evidence from the 1960s or 1970s of such a homecoming. He did find much scholarship which concluded that "acts of hostility against veterans by protesters were almost nonexistent."
Lembcke concluded by contending that the spitting image helps to tell a story that is not true, namely, that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because of betrayal on the home front. To the question where did this story come from and how did it gain any credence, Zeiger includes a clip from a Rambo movie, where Sylvester Stallone says in disgust he will never let any protester spit on him again, documenting again the possible role of Hollywood in reactionary myth making.
"Sir! No Sir!" is beginning to be shown around the U.S. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Its value and relevancy may be demonstrated by the fact that members of the Iraqi Veterans Against the War (IVAW) have attended showings of "Sir! No Sir!" and praised the film as full of lessons and encouragement.