I watched a great “anti-war” movie the other day. No, not Grave of the Fireflies; Grand Illusion; Hearts & Minds; or Dr. Strangelove, though I highly recommend them all. The documentary I watched is on par with all of them, even more compelling (and certainly more honest) than Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning Fog of War which appallingly made a hero out of the counterfeit contrition of the forever evasive Robert MacNamara.
David Zeiger’s “Sir! No Sir!” documentary chronicles the “seditious” Anti-war Movement of active duty GI’s and their supporters during the Vietnam War. This lost, er, stolen, from our collective memory Movement had as much or more to do with the US Military Machine’s eventual abandonment of its devastating multi-million corpse-creating SE Asian wet dream as did its civilian counterpart.
The film is populated with the GIs and supporters telling their story themselves — no war criminals seeking to remake themselves; no “stars” except for a short take with Jane Fonda, who recently has been apologizing for that famous photo posing with a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. She certainly has nothing to apologize for concerning her, Donald Sutherland and company’s brilliant and well-received FTA (“Fuck the Army”) counter-Bob Hope troop tours. The archival footage of those tours and the thousands of appreciative GIs in the audiences gives ample proof of FTA’s and Fonda’s true impact.
And, we can certainly be thankful that the self-serving, sonorous John Kerry is nowhere to be found.
Rebellion in the Ranks
This history with the Pentagon itself citing a total of 503,926 “incidents of desertion” from 1966–1971 alone; officers being “fragged” (killed by their own troops); and, by 1971, entire units refusing to go into action is brought to life here at a yet another time of Imperial overreach.
Superb archival footage is shrewdly used — though some of it is tough to take, such as shots of entire villages, fields and forests being obliterated. We see the story of the Presidio 27 unfold and then hear from its vets — prisoners in the San Francisco base’s stockade who are threatened with execution for treason when they refuse to work after a mentally-ill fellow prisoner is killed by a shot in the back.
We see the history and hear from the vets of the Ft. Hood 43–Black soldiers who refused to do “riot-control” duty at the 1968 Democratic National Convention–each was sentenced to 18 months hard time. (Can you just imagine if they HAD been there and armed when Mayor Daley’s thugs went on their rampage?)
The story is told of how the Long Binh Jail (LBJ was the appropriate nickname for Vietnam’s largest prison) was taken over by Black soldiers who held it for two months. Riots broke out at US military prisons all over the world! Thousands were jailed for refusing combat. Tens of thousands deserted and fled to welcoming nations; primarily Canada, France and Sweden.
Anti-war coffee houses sprung up around military bases. Zeiger himself worked at one of the main ones, the Oleo Strut, started in 1968 outside Ft. Hood, the base with the most sustained GI opposition. Up to 300 underground anti-war, soldier-run newspapers came out. Underground radio blossomed under the noses of the brass in Vietnam itself — at a time when hit songs like The Animals’ We Gotta Get Out of This Place, John Fogerty’s Fortunate Son, Edwin Starr’s War and Kenny Rogers’ Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town were banned from official Armed Forces Vietnam Network stations. The American Serviceman’s Union and the Vietnam Veteran’s Against the War (VVAW) were formed. They organized thousands of active duty soldiers who protested at virtually ever military base worldwide on Armed Forces Day. On Christmas Eve 1969, 50 GIs even staged an anti-war protest in Saigon!
On January 31, 1971, with funding raised by Fonda, Sutherland, social critic/comedian Dick Gregory, musician/activists David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Phil Ochs, VVAW held the three day Winter Soldiers Investigation (WSI) in Detroit. This citizen tribunal of honorably discharged GIs brought to light the enormity of the war crimes still occurring in SE Asia. VVAW also staged the dramatic (maybe, the most dramatic) protest of the era when they threw their medals onto the Capitol steps. The documentary has archival footage of both these events.
Kicking “Vietnam Syndrome” with Myths?
The movie also debunks the intractable “Myth of the Spitting Hippie.” You know, it goes like this: valiant GIs return home to America-hating dirty hippies and are spat upon on the tarmac. Tediously wading through media accounts of the era, the producers cannot find a single instance of any such spitting; though the lie can be traced directly to Sylvester “Rambo” Stallone’s whiney use of it in the 1982 movie First Blood. Returning soldiers first arrived at military airfields, not the San Francisco airport of the myth in the first place! Sure, they weren’t welcomed home with marching bands and all; but the real disgrace ever since has been the abandonment of Viet vets by the government, not the public.
The spitting legend was and is an integral part of the government’s playing the “kicking Vietnam Syndrome” card to justify it’s later incursions in Central America and today in the Middle East. The fable was amplified during the 1990 run-up to the Middle East Wars, as was the erasure of the very history of this ground-breaking and vital GI movement.
In 1991, after the end of the Persian Gulf stage of the Middle East wars, President Poppy Bush weirdly said, “The ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.” Former Assistant Secretary of State and Kerry campaign advisor Richard Holbrooke accused Bill Clinton of caving into “Vietmalia Syndrome” when Bubba quickly withdrew all troops from Somalia after the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. (This fixation with how the public views ineffective military actions undoubtedly cost Holbrooke the Secretary of State job when Clinton replaced Madeline Albright with Warren Christopher in 1997 — not that “Vietmalia Syndrome” stopped Clinton from blasting the Balkans.)
Just a few months into the disastrous Iraq occupation, General Ricardo Sanchez angrily asserted, “It’s not Vietnam and there’s no way that you can make the comparison to the quagmire of Vietnam.”
A Story No longer Untold
Out of the over 100 movies to date about Vietnam, not a one tells the history of the GI anti-war movement. None mentions the heroic account of navy nurse Susan Schnall, who was jailed after dropping anti-war leaflets from a plane over the Presidio. None tell the story of Greg Payton (and comrades), one of the organizers of the LBJ revolt. None tell of Dr. Howard Levy who served three years in jail for refusing to train troops — or the many others who tell their stories here.
See this necessary documentary. Better yet, buy the DVD and send it to an active duty GI you know. Heroic GIs helped stop US war crimes in SE Asia once before and they could well do it again in the current madness.
MICHAEL DONNELLY owes much to these astounding men and women. By the time he was drafted and declared himself a Conscientious Objector in 1971, all he faced was a year in limbo; not the incarceration and execution threats these true American heroes experienced. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org