The impassioned new documentary Sir! No Sir! never mentions the words "Iraq" or "Afghanistan." It doesn't have to. Unseen and unremarked-upon, those bloody venues nonetheless inhabit the entire 84 minutes of David Zeiger's film like some deadly, creeping virus for which there's no cure. Zeiger's actual subject, which he says has been on his mind for decades, is the GI antiwar movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a phenomenon that was far more powerful than the Swift Boat veterans and all those neo-con revisionists dedicated to putting a heroic new face on the ugliness of the Vietnam War would have us believe. From its mild beginnings poetry readings and discussion groups for young recruits at coffeehouses set up near U.S. military bases to its angriest, most desperate measures (the "fragging" of officers by their own men in the jungles of Southeast Asia), radical opposition to American foreign policy by thousands of our own soldiers, sailors, and airmen during Vietnam has been largely forgotten. So have the uniformed dissidents' underground newspapers, pirate radio stations, and huge stateside demonstrations. If we can believe Zeiger (and his evidence is pretty convincing), the entire movement has been more or less erased from the record, like the inconvenient fact of romantic love in 1984, or the notion of individual freedom in Stalinist Russia.
Sir! No Sir! recalls the follies and failures of one American war, but disturbing parallels to the one now being waged by the Bush administration are inescapable. Lest the murderous belligerence of Robert McNamara recede into the mists of time, we need only witness the latest fictions perpetrated by Donald Rumsfeld. Think Nixon, or LBJ, was the most dishonest American president of the 20th century? Check out what two-thirds of the American people have to say in the polls these days about the only president of the 21st. Forgotten about the My Lai massacre? It's harder to ignore Abu Ghraib. Santayana's dictum still holds: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
For Zeiger, who as a young activist helped organize demonstrations of veterans against the war, the time is right to remember. To that end, he has assembled a collection of grizzled Vietnam-era servicemen, haunted by their memories, who have plenty to say about what happened to them. The myth of the silent vet reluctant to talk about his war experience goes up in smoke here, despite the occasional awkward pause or quivering lip. If anything, the film's subjects seem relieved to vent, as if they were waiting all these years for someone to ask. Dr. Howard Levy, a dermatologist who served three years in prison for refusing to continue training Green Beret medics, tells how during his court-martial, hundreds of GIs would hang out of their barracks windows, flashing him the peace sign or the clenched fist. David Cline, an ex-grunt who was wounded three times in the killing fields, recalls the terrible day that he shot a North Vietnamese regular at close range and, moments later, stared into the dead soldier's face, wondering about his family, his life, his dreams. Medic Randy Rowland remembers grotesquely paralyzed U.S. soldiers begging him to kill them in their hospital beds because they couldn't do it themselves. Later, Rowland helped organize the now-forgotten "Presidio 27" stockade protest in San Francisco, provoked by the shooting of an escapee. "I kind of came in as an AWOL," he says, "and within two days of hitting the stockade, I was facing a death sentence for singing ÔWe Shall Overcome.'"
If the antiwar vets in fictional movies like Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July had the power to move us, they did it through a certain theatrical artifice. The real-life soldiers in Sir! No Sir! do it with candor and without a bit of help from Michael Moore. When United States Military Academy graduate Louis Font, who went on to Harvard for graduate work, became the first West Point graduate to refuse to fight in a war, the force of his conscience overcame the tears shed by his parents. Three decades later we behold him in an expensive charcoal business suit, saying softly: "I did the right thing."
Love her or leave her, Jane Fonda's also in the film, talking (a bit self-absorbedly, I think) about how she found a way to combine her acting career with her antiwar sentiments: "It just seemed like a perfect fit." Fine, but how shall we "fit" into the larger scheme of things a black soldier and outspoken war critic named Billy Dean Smith, who in 1969 was singled out as a scapegoat in a "fragging" case? Held in solitary confinement for 22 months, he was eventually acquitted because there wasn't a shred of evidence against him. Eventually, he wound up homeless, then landed back in prison. As for John Kerry, another Vietnam veteran who was critical of the war, he's not mentioned here because Zeiger thought he would have been a major distraction. You'll have to catch Going Upriver for that story.
As it is, this one is compelling enough, a potent mix of outrage, residual anger, and sorrow that speaks not just to the legacy of our misadventures in Vietnam, but to the entire uncertain future of a nation at war.
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