February 28, 2006

Hell No, We STILL Won't Go! 'Sir, No Sir!' Recaptures the Past for Anti-War


The sit-down strike of 27 prisoners at the Presidio Army Stockade following the killing of a prisioner by a guard. From Zeiger's Sir! No Sir!. Courtesy of National Archives

"You find out that it's all lies; they are just lying to the American people. And your silence just means you are a part of keeping that lie going...I couldn't be quiet. I felt I had a responsibility to my friends, and the country in general. And to advocate for the Vietnamese fighting for their country."
-GI activist David Cline
From David Zeiger's Sir, No Sir!

 

"It is the same shit, all over again," observes Kyle, a US Army deserter from the Iraq War now living underground in Canada. "Only the place and technology changes." In Sir, No Sir!, David Zeiger's new documentary about soldiers organizing resistance to the Vietnam War, Kyle had heard in the voices of an earlier generation of veterans his own indignation over being forced to fight a controversial war.

Watching Sir, No Sir!, Kyle found that his desperate effort to remove himself from the killing machine was mirrored in the stories of the handful of soldiers who refused to serve during President Lyndon Johnson's initial escalation of the war--particularly that of Terry Whitmore, who sought asylum in Sweden. By 1968 such individual acts of resistance numbered in the thousands and had crystallized into a sprawling "GI Movement" of anti-war coffeehouses, underground newspapers and lively on-base peace groups. With entire units refusing combat, President Richard Nixon was soon forced to begin withdrawing American ground troops and continue the war with intensified aerial bombardment, only to then see the in-service anti-war movement spread to the Air Force and Navy. As illustrated by Zeiger's film, contrary to the Rambo mythologies popularized afterwards, the US armed forces did not lose in Vietnam because liberal politicians had "tied one arm behind their back," nor did most veterans return home only to be spat upon by peace activists. Instead, it was the government that found its military options limited by an unprecedented number of soldiers who broke ranks to join the peace movement.

Like many middle-class men of his generation, Zeiger escaped service in Vietnam because of a loophole in the Selective Service System. Nonetheless, by 1969 the injustice of the conflict left him "no alternative" but to become involved in the anti-war movement. Looking for the most effective place to help, he moved to Texas and became a civilian activist with the GI coffeehouse outside Fort Hood.

Years later, as a successful filmmaker, Zeiger was frustrated that the story of the GI Movement had been suppressed, but he feared that any documentary about it would turn out to be nostalgic kitsch. The jingoism of the "war on terror" after 9/11 made him even more reluctant. "I didn't want that fight," he explains. However, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 compelled Zeiger to pick up the gauntlet. "It became a project I couldn't avoid," he maintains. "No one else was in a position to do it." Unable to interest American broadcasters, he secured deals with ARTE/France and Australia 's ABC in 2004 that greenlighted the project.

Nonetheless, while readily admitting his personal satisfaction in honoring his old comrades from Fort Hood and the film's resonance with the US military's situation in Iraq , Zeiger insists he is not an activist filmmaker trying to build a movement. "My responsibility is to tell compelling stories that, at best, affect people's view of the world," he notes. His intention with this film was to "tell a story that lives up to what happened" and produce "a piece of art that would be worthy of a broad audience." This perspective has shaped his distribution strategy, which remains focused on securing television broadcasts and a broad theatrical release, while groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War are encouraged to see that DVD copies are passed around firebases in Iraq. Ultimately, Zeigler wants the film to have the credibility necessary to place it on school library shelves. "It is really important to me that this movement take its rightful place in history," he affirms. In an earlier interview with Mother Jones magazine, he elaborated, "A big strength of the film, and what I think is going to bring it into the mainstream, is that this is historical metaphor. We don't have to say a word about Iraq in the film for it to be clearly identified with Iraq. The film can't be shoved into the category of a propaganda film."

Since its completion in June, Sir, No Sir! has won the LA Film Festival's Documentary Audience Award and was nominated for the IDA/ABCNews VideoSource Award for innovative use of archival footage and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. Working its way through the festival circuit, the film has been picked up by a handful of foreign broadcasters, including the BBC, and a US sale is imminent. Meanwhile, the documentary also has been screened in Australia on a wall across from where the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was docked, and the War Resister Support Campaign in Canada plans to use the film to raise funds for the legal defense of deserters like Kyle.

What lessons can other filmmakers draw from its success, and its limitations, as they take the front lines in recovering the forgotten past? Stylistically, the documentary is a simple chronicle of how the GI Movement evolved, told with informal, handheld interview footage and a rich collection of archival images, complemented by occasional flourishes such as on-screen definitions of GI slang. Narration is provided by Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda, whose discussion of her own extensive involvement with the GI Movement is one of the film's highlights, and her newfound willingness to revisit this chapter of her past, and help an old family friend, has prompted her to host fundraisers for the film. The GI Movement's other famous figurehead, John Kerry, is not mentioned in the documentary.

While the archival news footage effectively illustrates the GI Movement's importance, and long unseen footage of Fonda's "FTA Show" (the GI Movement's response to Bob Hope's gung-ho USO review) spices the documentary with dashes of fun and elegance, it is the testimonies of GI activists like Donald Duncan, Keith Mather and William Short that are the film's greatest strength. This is to be expected, as it is the engagement with personal stories that makes documentary films, and "popular history," more accessible to the general public.

However, some of the power of the GIs' testimony to not only inform and evoke compassion but also inspire is lost when viewers are not told of how their involvement with the GI Movement later positively shaped the young activists' lives. As Mike Wong, one of the former GI activists profiled in the film, recounts after the impromptu reunion that occurred at the film's premier, "A key realization of the night came to me when I was standing on the stage with the other military deserters/resisters. Virtually all of us had professional jobs. Most had homes, families, a middle class lifestyle. The other few had an alternative lifestyle that they chose, not one that was imposed on themthis from a group of people who had started out in life either as wanted criminals on the run from the FBI, or as convicted felons locked up in prison for years. Beyond material success, all of us were still dedicated to the same fundamental values that prompted our rebellion against the Vietnam War in the first place."

Sir, No Sir! was not meant to be a primer for social change or a model for ending the war in Iraq. Nonetheless, observations made in the film offer activists like Gerry Condon an opportunity to revisit tactical debates over how to best mobilize GI resistance, and the account of a grassroots referendum in San Diego over the 1971 deployment of the USS Constellation served to validate Kyle's argument that the soldiers in Iraq should be allowed to vote on whether the occupation should continue. Regardless of his claim to be "a storyteller, not a historian," by recapturing for the general public a time when average people made their own history, Zeiger has empowered activists of the future by letting those of the Vietnam generation lead by example.

 

Jeff Schutts is a college history instructor in Vancouver, BC. With his wife, filmmaker Michelle Mason, he is currently in production on a documentary about US deserters from the Iraq War seeking refuge in Canada. (Screen Siren Pictures/National Film Board of Canada/Global Television) His summary of the GI Movement, "Breaking Ranks: Anti-Vietnam War Activism within the US Military," can be found at www.sfu.ca/~thinkact/proceedings/JeffSchutts.pdf. For more on Sir, No Sir!, see www.sirnosir.com; for information on current GI resistance, see www.resisters.ca and www.ivaw.net.

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