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Reflections on the Anti-War Documentary, Sir! No Sir!

The new documentary about the Vietnam-era GI anti-war movement, Sir! No Sir!, opened in theaters during the spring and summer of 2006. The film compiles the historical record of the rank-and-file rebellion that grew during the war years and reached the level of mutiny in Vietnam by the war’s end. It recounts that history through the stories of people like Green Beret Master Sergeant Donald Duncan, Dr. Howard Levy, Navy Lt. Susan Schnall, and infantryman David Cline, all of whom turned against the war while still in the service and appear in the movie.

I have a part in the film as author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, a book that debunks the widely believed notion that anti-war activists were hostile to Vietnam veterans, even spitting on them at West Coast airports. In research for the book, I found similar stories in other societies following lost wars, stories that function as face-saving devices that attribute the war’s loss to home-front betrayal rather than the prowess of the enemy-victor. The myth of spat-upon Vietnam veterans also displaced from public memory the reality that thousands of GIs and veterans were integral to the anti-war movement, a fact that startles many Sir! No Sir! viewers when they see it so graphically revived on the screen.

My place in the film has created some opportunities for me to participate in post-showing discussion groups. Invariably, those discussions have drawn comparisons between then and now, the resistance of soldiers and veterans of the Vietnam years as portrayed in the film compared with the more compliant posture of troops today toward political and military authority. Not surprisingly, the audience drawn to the anti-war flavor of the film uses the past as a basis for criticism of the present, leading participants to ask why are so few uniformed Americans moved to resistance today when so many were in a state of insurgency just a generation ago?

Typical responses to the question take the form of: there is “no movement” today, by which speakers seem to mean there is no larger, more general movement for social reform that might succor the efforts of would-be in-service resisters. It’s an answer, though, which itself bends back into more questions: why is there no movement? Why isn’t there a movement now like there was then?

The “no movement” response may pack a bit of nostalgia for times that are better in memory than they were in reality. Leaving aside the purely wistful—“we don’t have a Peter, Paul, and Mary,” said a patron at the Green Mountain Film Festival—it is undeniably easier to remember the fewer large and successful turn-outs against the war than the many more frustratingly small ones that never made it to the Sunday papers. Romance for “the day,” in any case, diminishes the enormity of the mobilizations against the looming invasion of Iraq during February and March of 2003, and ignores how unpopular the war in Iraq remains in American public opinion polls.

Similar questions need to be raised about the claim that the news media was more forthcoming with information about the war in Vietnam than today’s press is about the current conflicts. The idea that Vietnam was a war on our television screens every evening has become common wisdom in recent years, a kind of unchallenged assumption used as a backdrop to highlight the complicity of today’s media in government propaganda. But a quick comparison of newspaper coverage of the two wars suggests that the public gets far more information about the war in Iraq than it did about the war in Vietnam. The problem might be less the censorship of news than the inability of Americans to make effective use of the information at hand. To put it in other terms, the problem may be more Huxlian than Orwellian, more a problem with what is in American living rooms—American Idol and ESPN—than what is not.1

By seeing the GI movement as an appendage of other oppositional efforts of the time, moreover, one of Sir! No Sir!’s most important points is obscured, namely, that in-service opposition to the war in Vietnam had a degree of autonomy from developments in the civilian world. Donald Duncan quit the Army in 1966, at a time when, as he recalls in the film, he was unaware of the anti-war movement, and it was in-service resister Howard Levy’s vision of an alternative to the Bob Hope variety show that inspired Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and others to form FTA (variously: Fun Travel Adventure or Free/Fuck the Army) that toured military bases in the U.S. and the Asian Pacific during 1971.

It would be a mistake, though, to flip the analytical coin over and assign causative powers to in-service resistors, thus crediting the early dissidents like Duncan with spawning the Vietnam-era movement that followed their path-breaking actions, and then, by extension, blaming the absence of ‘60s-like demonstrations on the relative quiescence of today’s GIs and Marines. Rather, the focus should be on the chemistry between military and civilian dissent and what is different about today that helps account for the seeming disinterest of many Americans, both in and out of uniform, in what the war is all about.

One difference is the absence now of an embraceable enemy-other, an avuncular leader like Ho Chi Minh and a hardscrabble underdog like the National Liberation Front. In 1965, within weeks of the first Marines landing at Da Nang—when the U.S. government was still demonizing the Vietnamese as terrorists—“Women’s Strike for Peace” saw something else in the “enemy” and sent a delegation to Hanoi to talk to them; a year later but still early in the war, the Quakers were taking medical aid to the communists; and by the end of 1967 American civilians acting independently of their government had negotiated the first prisoner releases. Within the military there was a similar recalibration of reality taking place. In the film, David Cline recalls looking at the Viet Cong soldier he had shot and thinking that that guy was fighting for his country too, and that he (Cline) had an obligation to honor what he died for and help end the killing.

Battle-born epiphany’s like Cline’s may happen more often than we think but what was different about that war was the opportunities it created for raised consciousnesses to be put to meaningful action. Lt. Susan Schnall was dealt a court-martial for protesting the war while wearing her uniform, and soon thereafter began doing support work for the communist Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam; Joe Urgo (also in the film) returned from Vietnam not only to protest the war but to go to the enemy’s capital, Hanoi, as a peace activist—while U.S. bombs were still dropping. By contrast, in-service resistance today lacks a comparable political context: it’s difficult to discern whose interest, besides their own, would be served by refusals of U.S. men and women to fight in Iraq? If veterans of the war in Iraq sought solidarity with their erstwhile enemies, which capital city would they trek to?

Another difference lies in the cachet carried by veterans from previous wars. Some of the most credible voices in the early movement against the war in Vietnam were World War II veterans who could see that the U.S. war of aggression in Southeast Asia was perverting, turning inside-out, the principles of the “Good Fight” they had waged in Europe and the Pacific. Following the bloody battle for the Ia Drang Valley in 1965, for example, 500 veterans of previous wars signed a full-page November 24 advertisement in the New York Times protesting the expanding U.S. involvement in South Vietnam. Formed into a group called Veterans for Peace, these older-generation veterans helped distribute Donald Duncan’s “I Quit” resignation from the Army and provided support for the Fort Hood Three who refused deployment to Vietnam in 1966.

Vietnam veterans, by contrast cut a more complex figure in the eyes of today’s military-eligible population. The image of activist Vietnam veterans was effectively pathologized during the 1980s through the canonization of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by mental health professionals and its use by the media to associate political dissent with psychiatric disorder. The thin line separating badness and sickness is recognized by criminologists and psychiatrists alike and it was the moving of that line for political and cultural reasons that brought the shadow of PTSD over the heads of thousands of Vietnam veterans. 2

Thanks to Hollywood for having imaged Vietnam veterans almost universally as dysfunctional, troops in today’s military would understandably find it hard to assess the credibility of the anti-war perspective coming from that generation of veterans. With their image of having been empowered and politicized by their wartime experience all but obscured in popular culture by the figures of homeless and strung-out victim-veterans, it is easy for the mind to smoosh the two into one broad category of stigmata to stay clear of.3

It’s an image that Sir! No Sir! corrects for. The turning point of the film comes early when veteran Bill Short tells that he was sent to the unit shrink in Vietnam for refusing his assignment to conduct body counts of enemy killed. Taped for the film thirty-five years later while sitting in his own office, Short demonstrates how the psychiatrist turned to take something off the shelf, something that will determine Bill’s future—and, we sense, frame the rest of the film’s story. It’s a pregnant moment that also locates the metaphorical fulcrum around which the construction of the veterans’ image in post-war culture would turn.

Were the film to be paused at that moment, and the audience quizzed, many in the theater would say, “. . . and the doctor pulled a diagnostic manual from the shelf and sent Sergeant Short stateside for psychiatric rehabilitation.” A few might add some riffs from Charlie Clements’s autobiography Witness to War about his confinement to a mental-health ward for refusal to fly in Vietnam. Other viewers would remember that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health professionals at the time did not have a category for war-related trauma, so they might guess that the rest of the film tells the story of how Bill Short and the doctor joined forces to lobby for the legitimation of the diagnostic category that became known as PTSD, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. These would all be reasonable assumptions, of course, because the story of Vietnam-era soldiers and veterans has been rendered so virtually one-dimensional by the dominance of the PTSD discourse that most Americans know no other way to think and talk about the subject. But it’s not the DSM that comes off the self and that’s not the story that filmmaker David Zeiger thinks we need to know.

After his own pause, Short says the doctor pulled down a copy of the November 9, 1969 New York Times; Bill doesn’t need treatment, he needs a social movement and here it is: a full-page advertisement against the war signed by 1,365 active-duty soldiers—[up-tempo music] the GI Movement is born.

* * * *

A funny thing happens after the screenings of Sir! No Sir!—all the talk is about empowerment and the place of soldiers in the anti-war movement. Funny, because interest in veterans nowadays turns, more typically, to talk about the mental and physical health of returnees, talk framed by the medical imagery given the war and post-war experience of veterans from Vietnam that has been carried into the present by the press and political activists, pro- and anti-war. That now-dominant paradigm was itself a construct of conservative political and cultural forces seeking to “put the war behind us” during the 1980s by displacing from public memory the historically grounded, but discomforting reality, that the war in Vietnam energized thousands of veterans to change the country that put them in harms way. Sir! No Sir! is the antidote to that revisionism.4

Sir! No Sir! is about a social movement that bridged the boundaries normally separating civilian and military dissent: ministers chaining themselves to in-service resistors; civilians running off-base coffee houses for on-base personnel; and petition campaigns that united sailors and shopkeepers to stop the deployment of Navy ships. It’s a story of the powerless finding their voice and a generation of people mobilized for war who found each other and made common cause to help end that war.

Reviewing the film for Now Toronto, Susan Cole quipped, “Somebody smuggle this thing to Iraq”—and, I would add, into every stateside military base, union hall, classroom, and religious community. In the right hands, Sir! No Sir! has the power author its own sequel.

1  The Monday, March 8, 1965 New York Times reported the first U.S. ground troops landing in Vietnam. It was a front-page composition of three stories, center-page, with a 3-column head below a photo captioned: “Alabama State Troopers Break up March by Protesting Negroes in Selma.” By contrast, the Thursday, March 20,2003 Times front page carried a 6-column, full-page-across, banner headline, “Bush Orders Start of War on Iraq” with the entire front page devoted to the start of the war. The next day, March 21, the entire front page was again covered with news of the war.

The contrast of coverage for the two wars after one week is even more striking. On March 28, 2003 the front page of the Times was still 100% war coverage, whereas, on March 25, 1965, a week after the Marines landed in Da Nang, they had been supplanted by a 4-column photo and story, “Freedom March Begins at Selma: Troops on Guard.” Vietnam had been reduced to a 1-column story about an air strike on the North.