Film Review #129: Sir! No Sir!
Director: David Zeiger
Cast: Donald Duncan, Jane Fonda, Howard Levy
It's the oddest sensation, watching the opening frames of this film. Werner Herzog used footage like this to open Rescue Dawn, footage shot from a US helicopter as it bombed a Vietnam village, shacks erupting in plumed blossoms of red and white flame. Same war, really different take.
“It seems unthinkable now,” said Jane Fonda in an interview for David Zeiger’s film about the Vietnam-era GI war resistance movement. She’s talking about the FTA Show that she and actor Donald Sutherland organized. Officially FTA stood for Free Theater Associates, but also nodded at how some GIs transformed the Army’s recruiting tagline, “Fun, Travel and Adventure,” to “Free the Army” as well as a less friendly alternative verb. The cabaret for troops toured near bases in the US, until it was banned, and then performed for some 60,000 GIs in Okinawa and the Philippines. Fonda is talking about “a hall full of guys who were so happy we had come to acknowledge their reality. I used to love the faces of the GIs – a shell would drop away and you’d see the youth and the innocence and the vulnerability underneath.”
Then Zeiger’s film cuts away to 1971 or 72 footage of a packed off-base FTA show in Asia and you can see what Fonda means about the young soldiers’ faces. In another interview, a boyish GI muses on the body of a Viet Cong about his own age whom he had to shoot; he wonders about the young man’s girl friend and who will tell his mother of his death. Among the film’s many recommending attributes, Zeiger’s ability to capture such decisive moments – when we see the humanity of these soldiers and they see the humanity of others – may be the strongest.
Time and again, we see decent young men – and one young woman, a Navy nurse who flew a small plane over California military bases to release anti-war leaflets, in imitation of the US Army’s mass leafleting of North Vietnam – struggling to figure out the right course. Zeigler pairs strong interviews of some key players – he says they were anything but reluctant to speak on record 35 years later – with archival film footage, clips of pirate radio broadcasts, news broadcasts and clippings that show these young people then and now. Sometimes halting and unpolished, they seem surprisingly unconcerned with celebrity and courageous in unrehearsed ways that you can’t help liking them for.
By the Pentagon’s own figures, there were 503,926 troop desertions between 1966 and 1971. Sir! No Sir! is a tightly made, extremely well-edited documentary that recovers the vast history of war resistance within the ranks: strikes in stockades, refusals to fight (some say the extent of these refusals led to Nixon’s switch to an air war in Vietnam and to the non-deployment of the company sent to Chicago for “riot duty” at the 1968 Democratic Convention), marches of thousands, underground newspapers and pirate radio on nearly every military base, dozens of coffee houses where returning GIs mingled with fresh troops who hadn’t shipped out yet and told them the real deal. Donald Duncan, the decorated Green Beret who quit on the cover of Ramparts magazine, is here, silver-haired and unrepentant. Keith Mather was part of the Nine for Peace who refused orders to ship out and sought sanctuary in a San Francisco church; after he was arrested, he organized the sit-down strike inside the Presidio Stockade after a guard shot and killed a prisoner. Louis Font was the first – and only – West Point graduate to refuse orders to fight.
One of the film’s better sections details such war resistance among black GIs. Marine Terry Whitmore, decorated personally by Lyndon Johnson after he had been wounded, went to Sweden instead of back to duty after watching federal troops – “in the same uniform as I got” – battle citizens in the streets in the wrench of agony after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Greg Payton recounts that some brothers landed in the brig for greeting each other with special handshakes and says, “I didn’t know ‘gooks’ was a racial slur. One day a light went off in my head.”
In 1969 David Zeiger himself was just a 19-year-old college freshman. He dropped out that year to work at the GI coffee house outside Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He spent two years there, where he first met many of those he highlights in this film. Equally valuable, Zeiger addresses official efforts to suppress the extent of the GI anti-war movement and to paint the peace movement as unsupportive of those troops. This includes the famous myth of the hippie girl in beads who spat in returning GIs’ faces and called them baby-killers. Never happened, says sociologist Jerry Lembcke, whose book The Spitting Image examines this circulating story’s origins and the massive disinformation campaign of which it was a part, including Hollywood mainstream movies like Sly Stallone’s 1982 First Blood: Rambo, with his character’s impassioned diatribe against “spitters.” Lots of other movies jumped on that bandwagon –remember John Wayne as a Green Beret ?
Meanwhile, there is one vet who chokes up and can’t finish as he recounts how he saw some soldiers treat Vietnamese prisoners. After a moment he goes on, “Well, I saw things – like we’ve seen again now.” I think he’d like knowing that the local chapter of Iraq Veterans against the War made this DVD, released last December, available to “Make it Snappy,” and I’ll pass it on to Emerald City Video so you can rent it.
This review appeared in the 10/11/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.