Here comes another shot in the war that never seems to end ... that is, the cultural war over the Vietnam War. David Zeiger's intriguing, if at times murky, documentary Sir! No Sir! uncovers a battleground which previously hasn't received much attention ... the resistance to the war from active-duty servicemen.
Some the material in Sir! is familiar from previous Vietnam documentaries: the muddled military strategy; the enemy that couldn't be contained; the horrors on the ground; and the increasing disconnect between politics, policy and what was actually happening. The present-day Vietnam-era vets that Zeiger interviews all restate these common critiques.
But Zeiger also seeks to challenge our mythology about activism against the Vietnam War ... that it wasn't simply "good hippie against the war" vs. "bad soldier for the war." In fact, there were soldiers ... some of them barely more than boys ... who, spurred by their disillusionment and anger, fought back with action ... everything from boycotts and marches to refusing orders and deserting. Ironically, taking a stand against the war from within the ranks often meant immediate and severe punishment, whereas similar actions much lauded among civilians amounted to protected free speech.
In a broader sense, Sir! examines the pitfalls that can occur when the job ... in this case, fighting a poorly defined war ... subsumes the individual, negating his own abilities to see clearly and to cry foul. For the vets interviewed, their protests became a moral imperative, forged from battle experiences. One vet-turned-activist, Dave Cline, explains how he felt returning stateside in 1968: "When you find out that [the war policies] are all lies and that they're just lying to the American people, and your silence means you're part of keeping that lie going ... I couldn't be silent."
Much of the archival material presented in Sir! is fascinating and fresh, from footage of the vet- and civilian-run coffee houses adjacent to bases that were designed to serve as refuges and de-programming centers, to the astonishing array of underground newspapers and pamphlets published by servicemen with titles such as "The Last Harass," "Fatigue Press," "Shakedown" and "The Star Spangled Bummer."
Some of the protests documented in the film were small, but nonetheless illustrate that plenty of grunts weren't merely passive pawns. One such action, long since lost to history, was the early 1970s boycott against the Tyrell's jewelry-store chain near several bases. Tyrell's not only pressured young GIs into buying keepsake jewelry for their mothers and sweethearts, but also promised that if the buyer died in combat, outstanding payments would be forgiven and the GI's name would be listed on an honor roll. The protesters argued that the store was exploiting GI deaths to market how GI-friendly it was, and, under pressure, the store was forced to amend its sales practices.
Other protests, such as troops' wholesale refusal to go on missions, may have had direct impacts on the war's progression. One group of vets interviewed relates how, in their roles as spies in Vietnam during the late-war shift to air assaults, they simply stopped translating the North Vietnamese conversations that they intercepted.
Zeiger's goal is noble ... GI activism is an aspect of the Vietnam War that deserves an airing ... and his central point is well taken: Who could oppose the war more than those forced to fight it even as they saw firsthand its folly and devastation? But outside of its specific individual accounts, Sir! suffers from generalization and some casual fact-slinging.
In the final third of the film, covering the last years of the war, Zeiger begins to blur his arguments. While there may have been unprecedented low morale and malaise among GIs, it's hard to quantify how much of that is directly related to any organized protest movements, as Zeiger implies, and how much is just a natural reaction to being in a horrible situation
Some material Zeiger cites requires context or further explanations, such as his claim that there were "503,926 incidents of desertion." Is that half a million soldiers who disappeared? What constitutes an "incident"? We don't learn any more. When Seiger discusses "fragging" ... soldiers killing their officers ... there's plenty of postulating about the impact this may have had on policy. But few useful facts, such as how many acts occurred and under what circumstances, are provided.
While no film can ever hope to tell all sides of this still-divisive war, Sir! would benefit in places from a broader analysis. For instance, it's a bit disingenuous to show highlights of Jane Fonda's anti-war USO-style cabaret tour, without once mentioning the various controversies her activism stirred up.
Such questions don't necessarily disprove his larger points about GI dissatisfaction, protest and activism, but they're worth exploring or at least clarifying. Especially since Zeiger is quick to decry the government's misuse of "facts," and to rail against the various "myths" that still dog the perception of the war.
But even the fact that this film raises questions about its own message and delivery of information delivery is useful. Sir! No Sir! doesn't attempt to draw any direct corollaries with the war in Iraq, but it serves to remind us to pay attention. We're in another war-media spin cycle now, and we should be ever cognizant of separating facts from propaganda, the message from the messenger, and the "honor" of our fight against the mess on the ground. That lesson is what the vets in this film fought hardest for.