A much-needed corrective to the "Forrest Gump" version of the anti-war movement, David Zeiger's "Sir! No Sir!" faithfully documents the almost-forgotten GI protests during the Vietnam War.
In the '60s and early '70s, groups like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War questioned our nation's policy from a far more dangerous — and informed — position than middle-class students on campuses. They took their stand from within the military, when they were still subject to military law. At the time, organizing an anti-war meeting could net you six to 10 years in jail. Merely carrying a sign could put you away for two.
Yet, despite the threatened punishments, the protesters persisted. A veritable cottage industry in anti-war coffeehouses and underground newspapers sprang up around most military bases. Further, according to the Pentagon's own figures, a reported 503,926 "incidents" of desertion (as they were called) took place.
An articulate Jane Fonda is interviewed, and her son, Troy Garity, narrates. But otherwise Zeiger wisely eschews a celebrity-centric approach and focuses instead on everyday soldiers who made the difficult choice of placing conscience before country.
And — this is important — at the same time, he doesn't set them up as somehow better or smarter or more moral than those who believed in the war when they went into the service and came out still believing our nation had done the right thing. That's not what "Sir! No Sir!" is about. But a lot of revisionism has taken place in the past couple of decades, and Zeiger doesn't think a collective forgetting is good for either side.
We meet Dr. Howard Levy, who faced a court-martial for refusing to train other doctors and nurses for duty in a war he no longer felt was just. And ex-Green Beret Donald Duncan, who resigned his commission in 1965. And Louis Font, the first West Point graduate to refuse military service, if it meant going to Vietnam. And Jerry Lembcke, who wrote a book tracing and ultimately debunking the persistent urban legend of the hippie chick who spits on a returning vet. And Navy nurse Susan Schall, who proudly wore her uniform to demonstrations because, "If Westmoreland could wear his uniform, I could wear mine."
As we listen to these different voices, another theme emerges that has less to do with the rights and wrongs of Vietnam than with these particular men and women. Like the aging resistance fighters in "The Sorrow and the Pity" or Meryl Streep's character in "Plenty," these were the best years of their lives. These are their war stories — organizing protests and distributing leaflets.
"Sir! No Sir!" documents the movement from a number of different perspectives. There's the anti-Bob Hope tour (starring Fonda and Donald Sutherland) known as "F.T.A." which translated variously as Fun Travel Adventure, Free the Army and, most frequently, as something that can't be printed in a family newspaper. The show was banned from bases, but nevertheless played to thousands of GIs. And not all the protest stories are laudatory, because not everyone behaved well.
The film would've been stronger if some voice had been given to those in the military who vehemently disagreed with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and their civilian ilk. Again, Zeiger doesn't intend his work to be a referendum on Vietnam, but some acknowledgment would've shed more light. The picture can get a little self-congratulatory.
And like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, the war in Iraq is never mentioned. It doesn't need to be. The comparisons are unavoidable.
It's said history is written by winners. But the Vietnamese didn't re-write our memory of that war and those who questioned it. Politicians and, to some extent, the media did. "Sir! No Sir!" probably won't change any minds — about Vietnam or Iraq. But it's an invaluable record of what some soldiers felt about the war they fought and what some soldiers did about it when they returned home.