David Zeiger’s Sir! No Sir!, which runs June 16-22 at the Brattle Theatre, is yet another absorbing documentary that George W. won’t see, or want you to see, because, as the prez often cautions, “It sends the wrong message to our troops.” Does it ever! By chronicling the little-known story of resistance within the American military during the Vietnam War, it could give our guys and gals being shipped to Iraq some seditious ideas. Resist! Tell the Republican gang in Washington, “We don’t want your fucking war!” Just as many Vietnam GIs did.
What will surprise everyone seeing this film, including those with a vivid memory of the 1960s and 1970s US anti-war movement, is how much protest there was by people in uniform. As early as 1966, when most at-home Americans hadn’t thought much about being at war in Southeast Asia, some in the military were already saying “No” to combat. Dr. Howard Levy, a physician serving in Vietnam, was sentenced to three years in prison because, appalled by the murder of civilians, he refused his duties. Already in 1966, the leftist American magazine Ramparts had a cover story about a disillusioned Green Beret, Donald Duncan, with the banner headline “I quit!”
Sir! No Sir! uncovers a national chain of GI coffeehouses near military bases where soldiers and marines could read alternative weeklies, listen to protest music, and chat about the lousy war under posters of Che Guevara and Huey Newton. Soldiers started their own underground papers and distributed them clandestinely on the bases. This documentary makes the startling claim that there were 300 such papers! And who today remembers the battles within military jails between incarcerated soldiers, who had refused to be shipped to Vietnam, and prison authorities, who viewed these inmates as traitors? Sir! No Sir! makes it clear that protesting the war from within the military wasn’t taken lightly. It could be viewed as mutiny.
Zeiger doesn’t hide his film’s radical politics. He views America’s invasion of Vietnam as horrendous and immoral, a barely concealed genocidal plan to erase the Communist-led North Vietnamese from the earth. The 1968 My Lai massacre, in which American troops murdered some 500 innocent Vietnamese, was not an aberration but a typical action ordered by the neo-fascist US military. No wonder our unhappy soldiers, sickened to be in Vietnam, resorted to “fragging,” offing their own officers with grenades. Is the film a little one-sided? Yes sir! Couldn’t one soldier speak on camera who believed, and still believes, that we were fighting Communism in Vietnam and Cambodia?
Two dozen or so now middle-aged and paunchy ex-soldiers are interviewed, and they all speak of what turned them against the Vietnam War, and how they protested. These are ordinary men, courageous men. The only celebrity on camera is a svelte Jane Fonda, who after apologizing in recent years for her notorious anti-war activities seems to have taken back her “I’m sorry.” She tells with relish of how her traveling troupe (Donald Sutherland included) entertained soldiers with their “Fuck the Army” message. John Kerry? The ninny who during his presidential campaign played down his identity as a gutsy throw-away-my-medals protester is left out of this documentary. Who needs him?
A final contribution of Sir! No Sir!: laying to rest the oft-told pitiful story of decadent anti-war students spitting on valiant returning Vietnam vets. This never happened, no matter what Sylvester Stallone claimed in First Blood.