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 85 minutes of David Zeiger’s impassioned documentary 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 G.I. anti-war movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a phenomenon far more powerful than the Swift Boat Veterans and all those neocon 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. 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 servicemen 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. 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 G.I.’s 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 ‘We Shall Overcome.’ ”
Love her or leave her, Jane Fonda’s also in the film, talking (a bit self-absorbedly) about how she found a way to combine her acting career with her anti-war 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. He wound up homeless, then landed back in prison. As for John Kerry, 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.