The resistance that grew within the ranks of the military to the war in Vietnam is the subject of this effective if somewhat self-congratulatory little documentary, which takes on added resonance in view of the fact that the U.S. is now engaged in another controversial conflict that threatens to drag on and end at best inconclusively. “Sir! No Sir!” is a solid picture that blends contemporary footage, stills, historical context and modern interview material nicely to tell the story of some daring protestors and the impact they--and others who were not in uniform--ultimately had on policy (as well as the treatment they suffered at the hands of the authorities--including imprisonment, court-martial and simple beatings). It performs a useful service in providing information on a little-known facet of the reality of the sixties and seventies and in debunking myths about the treatment of Vietnam veterans that have arisen over the years (mostly for political reasons, of course). But while one can’t help but sympathize with those given the chance to recall their opposition acts here, the film sidesteps some very important questions in the process, particularly whether it’s possible to have an effective military at all without discipline and obedience to orders. And in the treatment of actions like fragging, it can be criticized for being more than a bit accommodating.
But perhaps the most controversial aspect of “Sir! No Sir!” won’t be the recollections of their resistance activities by veterans, or their confirmation of the brutalities in which American forces engaged on the ground in Southeast Asia. (We also see some clips from the early seventies documentary “Winter Soldier,” which recorded the awful testimony provided by servicemen at a conference organized by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. That documentary itself has recently been issued on DVD after remaining in obscurity for years.) It might well be the footage of Jane Fonda, who’s seen both as she was back in the sixties and seventies, headlining unauthorized shows for soldiers that slammed the military in response to the Bob Hope extravaganzas, and in recent interviews, in which she looks back enthusiastically at her efforts back then and the impact on policy she and like-minded activists had. Her appearances will doubtlessly inflame those who still look upon her as unpatriotic, to say the least.
But given the sort of polemical political use (or more properly abuse) made of the war in the last presidential election--including the entire appalling Swift Boat business--it’s certainly time that the entire Vietnam experience be revisited not just by scholars and academics, but by the larger American public. And “Sir! No Sir!” is welcome in throwing light on men and women whose contributions to changing U.S. policy in Vietnam have usually been either ignored or vilified. At the same time, it doesn’t consider the ramifications as fully and sensitively as it might have done. As a result the film will serve more effectively as a springboard for discussion than as a definitive treatment of the subject. But on its own terms it’s an invigorating, compelling tribute to men and women who exhibited real courage and commitment on a different kind of battlefield--one that some will consider a more honorable field of combat than those in Southeast Asia were.